HILMAR — The Lady Bruins’ attempt at a second straight Sac-Joaquin Section Division-IV girls volleyball championship fell a few points short Thursday as Bear River was bounced in the semifinals by the No. 2 seed Hilmar.
The YellowJackets (37-7) rallied from a set down to beat No. 3 seed Bear River (20-15) in five sets, 25-23, 20-25, 10-25, 25-19, 18-16.
“It stings,” Bear River head coach Matt MacDonald said. “But phenomenal effort by both teams. That is some of the best volleyball all season.”
In the end, Bear River couldn’t capitalize on a 15-14 edge in the fifth and decisive set. With the match and the section final at their fingertips, the Lady Bruins failed to notch the needed point, and Hilmar seized the opportunity.
The Yellowjackets’ sensational sophomore, Emily Baptista, put down a kill to knot the game at 15. Another Hilmar kill gave it the one-point advantage, but Bear River squared the contest at 16 on a Teryn Rath kill set up nicely by Savannah Wirth.
Hilmar would respond with a Baptista kill, her 34th on the night, then followed it with another kill from Lauren Brennan to clinch a spot in the section title game.
“We played 100 percent,” Bear River senior Kirsten Pereira said. “We played our hearts out, we really did, and they brought it, too. It was just that last push.”
Pereira led the Lady Bruins with 30 kills and three aces. Fellow senior Teryn Rath added 22 kills, many of them powerful strikes, to go with 12 digs and three blocks.
“Their four years have helped us build this program,” MacDonald said of his seniors. “Players like Kirsten and Teryn and all our seniors have had to deal with me for four years and listen to my jokes and put up with me — helping build this program, helping at camps, volunteering in the community, talking with the media, doing all the things that help build a program. They will be missed.”
Hilmar opened the match with a 25-23 first set victory, coming from a 20-17 deficit to do so.
The Lady Bruins responded with a 25-20 victory in set two and a dominating 25-10 third-set victory.
But in the fourth set, Baptista took over. The 6-foot, 2-inch outside hitter scored six of the Yellowjackets’ first eight points as Hilmar grabbed an 8-2 lead and cruised to a 25-19 fourth-set victory, forcing the fifth and final set.
“The difference is when they came back after that third set,” MacDonald said. “We beat them 25-10. They come back and get an early lead 8-2. And we’ve been in enough situations to know that if you beat a team 25-10, that doesn’t mean anything. It means they are going to fight back, and they did.”
In the loss, senior Hannah Christianson led Bear River in digs with 13, sophomore Wirth dished out an incredible 53 assists, sophomore Kaely Rath knocked down eight kills, and senior Ellie Vandervort impressed with her serve, tallying three aces.
For the Lady Bruins, this ends a spirited run through the section playoffs where they had knocked off Marysville and Los Banos, before falling to Hilmar.
“At this point, these girls are my family, my sisters,” Pereira said. “I’ve been with some of them for four years, and it’s really hard to think that it’s over.”
For MacDonald, it ends one of the most trying and memorable seasons of his career.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever coached a team that has been through more adversity,” MacDonald said. “With the injuries, team things, having all our juniors quit at the beginning of the year, having so many sophomores up, it was the most memorable year I’ll ever have, including the section years, because they just kept fighting.”
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