By Jeremy Balan
In the three prior meetings against Bellarmine this season, St. Ignatius couldn’t get a win — not a match, or even a single game.
But the Wildcats came through in the most important match of the year, upsetting the top-seeded Bells 31-29, 21-25, 16-25, 26-24, 15-13 to clinch their first West Catholic Athletic League championship in school history.
“This is something the kids can take away and remember for a really long time,” said St. Ignatius co-head coach Brad Walsh. “Obviously this is a big feat for the kids and it’s quite a way to end this year.”
It all worked out for the Wildcats (23-12) in the end, but in the fourth game, the outlook did not look bright for St. Ignatius.
Facing four consecutive match points, St. Ignatius rallied back to tie the game at 24-24, then took the lead after a Bellarmine mishit and sealed the crucial game with an emphatic block from senior middle blocker Joel Schow.
After leading the Wildcats in kills in the first game, Schow’s offensive effectiveness waned as the game wore on, but he was a constant force on the block, tallying a team-high eight point-scoring blocks.
“I knew I needed to stay disciplined and I know blocking is one of my strong suits,” Schow said. “I feel like I’ve played these guys enough that I know what they’re going to do. I had to play smart more than [anything else].”
Fully seizing the momentum, the Wildcats inched ahead 9-8 in the deciding fifth game, then rode the hot hand of senior Mat Collins.
Of the final six St. Ignatius points, five game on kills from Collins, including the match-winning strike, a cross-court shot that landed down the line, right in front of the Bellarmine bench. Collins finished with a match-high 19 kills.
“I knew the ball was going to me, I hit it, and I couldn’t see whether it was in or out,” Collins said. “I just saw everyone jumping around and it just feels awesome right now.”
While the action came to a head in the final two games, all five games individually had subplots of their own, setting the stage for the dramatic finish.
The first game set the tone for the whole match, and featured 12 ties and seven lead changes.
Behind five kills, two blocks and an ace from Schow, the Wildcats battled through three game points in the first, but edged the Bells after consecutive points on a kill from Evan Cotter and a block from setter Teddy Niemira sealed the extended game.
“Once we got over that hump, we knew right away that we could hang with them and beat them,” Walsh said. “That was a great stepping stone to start the [match] off right, but we knew one game wasn’t going to do it. The first game was just a piece of that puzzle.”
After winning its first game over Bellarmine this season, the Wildcats appeared to have the second game in-hand as well, but surrendered what was a 20-17 lead, as the Bells ended on a 7-1 run to close the game out.
“They caught us in an unfavorable rotation and we weren’t able to get the sideout,” Walsh said. “You could feel us deflate a little bit and it took the wind out of our sails.”
The Bells’ run continued in the third game, in which St. Ignatius never challenged for the lead. Bellarmine opened up a 19-6 lead in the third, and cruised to a 25-16 win.
“I was actually smiling over there, because I knew we could pull it out,” Schow said. “We’ve made it out of worse [situations] and I knew we had what it took to win.”
For Bellarmine (36-6), which was solidly the best team in the WCAL this year, the loss spoiled a dominating performance from senior middle blocker Andrew Krasts, who had team-high 13 kills and a staggering 11 blocks.
“It’s easy to become No. 1, but it’s hard to stay there,” said Bellarmine head coach Scott Peterson. “These guys played a really hard-fought match and played great defense. I can’t say there was anybody who could have given more or done something better. It just went there way.”
For Walsh, fellow co-head coach Steve Dunne and the Wildcats, even while taking in the moment, thoughts were directed toward the future.
“It’s obviously a special occasion, but for us, we want [the Central Coast Section championship],” Walsh said. “That’s our ultimate goal. To use this momentum and fire right through. “