Back to the big time: Nevada Union falls in title match, shifts focus to NorCal playoffs | TheUnion.com

Back to the big time: Nevada Union falls in title match, shifts focus to NorCal playoffs

SACRAMENTO — The last time Regan Heppe and Nevada Union's Lady Miners took to the floor against Ponderosa, it was a long way from the bright lights and big stage of a Sac-Joaquin Section championship match.

And both teams were far from title contenders, a pair of once perennial power programs had fallen on tough times.

Heppe — now a senior captain, then a freshman — had three kills in that 2-1 win over Ponderosa in the 2014 Carmichael Invitational, part of a 12-19 Nevada Union season. Ponderosa, at the time, had managed an 18-18 win-loss mark that year — now a distant memory with its 34-4 run through the current campaign.

On Saturday, the two teams squared off on the section's biggest stage, as Ponderosa swept through three games (25-18, 25-21, 25-21), to take the Division II section crown in a long-awaited return to a championship bout for both.

"Man, Ponderosa was tough," said Nevada Union coach Chrys Dudek. "What they did was they didn't make mistakes. And that was our downfall. We made a few more mistakes than they did, and they capitalized on that.

"It would have been nice to go to four or five (games), but Ponderosa really earned it. They outplayed us."

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Slow start, fast finish

Ponderosa pulled through game one in quick fashion, moving a two-point lead (17-15) to a seven-point margin (22-15), thanks to an ace served up by Zoe Zimmerman, kills by her junior classmates Brooke Ono and Amanda Yocca, along with a pair of Nevada Union hitting errors.

The next round was tighter — knotted up 10 times with eight lead changes — before Ponderosa pushed the Miners aside late. Zimmerman led the way, after being a bit late to start the second due to a nosebleed. Once she took the floor, to chants of "Let's go Pondo! … Let's go Pondo!," Zimmerman drove home four kills for a 7-5 lead and was again behind the service line as Ponderosa stretched a one-point lead to 22-17 en route to the game two win.

Nevada Union hit the gas and had its largest lead of the night at 14-9 in game three. But as cheers of "Miner Magic! … Miner Magic!" began to echo, Ponderosa took a timeout to stem the tide and promptly took the momentum back to its side.

Yocca served up eight straight, taking a lead Ponderosa didn't relinquish, despite a pair of long back-and-forth rallies with a Lady Miner squad not ready to call it a night. NU's hitting attack peppered Ponderosa, with haymakers from Heppe, sophomore Faith Menary and seniors Greta Kramer and Danica Minard. But Pondo's defense was game, digging out each shot sent toward its floor and again emerging with the win.

"We just kept trying to get that upper hand, but it just wasn't working out," Heppe said.

'Long time coming'

NU's senior class of Heppe, Kramer, Minard and Lauren Engelking helped lead the Lady Miners back to a championship match for the first time since 2009, back when Nevada Union was known statewide — on the heels of three California state championship runner-up finishes, and a Sac-Joaquin Section record seven consecutive championship banners.

In the years that followed, the program struggled not only to make the playoffs but also to produce a winning record.

Dudek, who led NU to the 2008 championship during a one-year stint at the helm, returned the program in 2015. At the time, the Lady Miners had reached the playoffs just once since 2009, a 3-0 first-round loss at Rodriquez in 2013.

After dropping its first three Sierra Foothill League matches this season, Nevada Union ran off eight wins in their next nine SFL showdowns — part of a 20-9 overall run to close out the regular season.

Now, three-straight playoff berths, a third-place finish in league play and an appearance in the section title match all point to Nevada Union on the upswing, which makes its senior members pretty proud.

"It definitely feels good," said Kramer. "It feels like a long time coming. And it's nice, with this being the last year in the SFL, just to do well in that league before we go to a different one."

When Nevada Union does go to a different league next year, the Lady Miners will find a now familiar foe in Ponderosa, which along with the Miners is also primed to join the Foothill Valley League in the 2018-19 school year. Saturday's win marked the first section crown for Ponderosa since 1987, when the Bruins went back-to-back in the wake of its first championship in '86.

"I think we've really been building up the program in our last few years," said Heppe. "To make an impact on our way out felt really good."

Next stop: NorCals

The Lady Miners (33-13) now shift their attention to the California Interscholastic Federation's state playoffs in the opening round of Northern California bracket play Wednesday.

Nevada Union, the No. 6 seed in Division II, will host No. 11 Chico (17-11) at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Heppe said Nevada Union needs to focus on its own play moving forward.

"I just think we need to bring it back to basics, and really get back to our whole team," Heppe said. "I think just have fun in NorCals, 'cause there's nothing to lose and our season can keep going as long as we want it to, so just power through it."

Regardless how far the current run extends, Nevada Union's faithful knows the Lady Miners are now back on the map. And their coach says his players deserve that designation.

"They earned it. They've been working hard," Dudek said. "They've been working hard since freshman year, the seniors have, gradually getting better and better, each season we're getting better.

"The last two seasons we made it to playoffs. … So there's just been this progression. And throughout this whole season we've been getting better and better. We've had a couple of ups and downs, but for the most part, they've earned every point that they got."

Contact Editor Brian Hamilton at bhamilton@theunion.com or 530-477-4249.

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