By Jeremy Balan
University High School simply could not stop St. Joseph Notre Dame’s Phoebe Grunt in the North Coast Section Division V girls volleyball semifinals on Wednesday night.
So the Red Devils did their damage when Grunt couldn’t hurt them.
Grunt had a match-high 22 kills, but when she was stuck in the back row in the deciding fifth game, the Red Devils pounced and sealed a spot in the section championship game with a 25-10, 25-16, 23-25, 19-25, 15-9 win over the visiting Pilots.
The third-seeded Pilots (30-6) took a 4-3 lead early in the fifth game, then Grunt rotated to the back row and the second-seeded Red Devils (26-9) instantly went on a 8-1 run, building a lead St. Joseph could not rally back from.
“I kept saying, ‘Keep this run going so we can keep her in the back row,'” said University head coach Nicole Schott. “That was the plan the whole time, to use our points and use our serve when she was in the back row, because she’s such a great player.”
After controlling the first two games, the Red Devils were three points away from a sweep when St. Joseph eliminated a 22-19 University lead and took the third game 25-23. In the fourth game, the Pilots were ahead from start to finish, and got seven kills from Grunt to force a deciding fifth.
“I was very nervous,” Schott said. “I thought we were going to lay down and die from the looks on our faces after game four. In the break, I just told them it’s one game to 15 against a team across the bridge, simple as that. Let’s win it.”
As they did all night, the Red Devils turned to senior outside hitter Katherine Evers in the fifth game, and she responded with four kills. Evers often went blow-for-blow with Grunt and finished with a team-high 19 kills.
“She’s our go-to player and she’s gotten a lot better this season,” Schott said. “Even in her senior year, when she could get nervous and panic, she’s still our big gun.”
Despite the loss, St. Joseph head coach Edwin Chen was more than pleased with the Pilots’ ability to battle back and push University to the limit.
“We would have loved to have gone farther, but I have no complaints,” Chen said. “They left it all out there.”
The Red Devils will make an appearance in the NCS championship game for the second-consecutive year on Saturday night, but the opponent is a familiar powerhouse.
Two-time defending champion Branson awaits, and the Bulls knocked off the Red Devils 25-19, 25-20, 25-17 in last season’s championship game.
This year, the Bulls are 35-1, regarded by many as the best team in any division in the NCS, and beat University twice in a non-league tournament in late September.
“We’re excited to play them,” Schott said. “I feel like we’re a better team [than when we played them last], but it doesn’t matter how much better we’ve gotten. They’ll still be tough.”
Regardless of the outcome, University has a place in the Division V CIF State Championship Tournament, which begins next week.