By Jeremy Balan
Two games into its Academic Athletic Association semifinal match against Lowell High School, Lincoln was in the worst possible position.
The Mustangs dropped the first two games and were plagued by frequent unforced errors, but after Lowell took the opening point in the third game, Lincoln responded.
After tying the game on the next point, the Mustangs did not allow the Cardinals to hold another lead in the match, storming back to win the final three games en route to a 21-25, 21-25, 25-19, 25-19, 16-14 win on Wednesday at Lowell High School.
“We’ve been doing it all year, making it harder on ourselves than it should be,” said Lincoln head coach Vince Tang. “It’s their championship to take. We have the most athletic guys in the league, but if they don’t play smart, any team can beat us.”
Riding the hot hands of senior outside hitters Johnson Li and Phillip Xie, the Mustangs opened up a 20-10 lead and cruised to a 25-19 win in the third game, and kept the momentum to take the fourth by the same score.
In the deciding fifth game, Li sustained the Mustangs with six kills, and after Lowell battled back from five match points to tie the game at 14-14, he sealed the match with a block.
“We just kept our composure and everything came through,” Li said. “Lowell is a great team, but if we’re going to go out, we’re going to go out hard. We gave it everything, because we were on our last life.”
Li and Xie combined for 22 kills in the final three games.
“Phillip and Johnson took it upon themselves to lead us to victory,” Tang said. “I told my setter [Aaron Tan], ‘You gotta go to your guns.’ I trust the decision he makes, but sometimes you have to go with what is working.”
Outside hitter Lincoln Lam, the only starting senior for the Cardinals, did his best to buoy the Lowell cause, collecting a team-high 18 kills, but it wasn’t enough.
“He wanted it pretty bad and suffered an injury about a week and a half ago,” said Lowell head coach Steven Wesley. “He did all the rehab necessary to get out there and he gave it his all. It’s all about the heart and he has it.”
The inexperienced Cardinals won’t repeat as AAA champions, but Wesley got all he could ask for.
“I expected [Lincoln] to come back. If they didn’t, I would have been surprised,” Wesley said. “It was just a matter of how much we wanted it, and at [14-9 in the fifth game], we came up with some huge plays and that shows all the heart we needed. There were some tears at the end, but they were more happy tears.”
Up next for the Mustangs is top-seeded Galileo in the AAA final on Friday. The Lions defeated Washington in the other semifinal on Wednesday and beat Lincoln in both meetings in the regular season.
“Right now, the records mean nothing,” Tang said. “Whatever happens, happens. The main thing is, if these guys can play with energy and not get so down on themselves, they can do it.”