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Rams bump Placer in semifinal

Nemesis St. Mary’s too much for senior-laden Hillgals
By: Eric J. Gourley Journal Sports Writer
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STOCKTON — Wiping the sorrow from her face, Colleen Stafford emphasized to her fellow seniors the highs of one of the most successful volleyball seasons in Placer history. Top seed St. Mary’s eliminated the No. 5 Hillgals for the third straight year, sweeping Placer 25-23, 25-15, 25-20 in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division III semifinal Tuesday night. Stafford was quick to remind her teammates about winning consecutive Pioneer Valley League titles and advancing to the section semifinals for only the third time in school history. “Losing this match doesn’t mean everything,” said Stafford, whose five kills were second only to Julia Dorsey. The pair are part of a seven-member senior group, the first to play their entire Placer careers under fourth-year coach Jennifer Wright. “St. Mary’s is a good school,” Stafford added. “We lost to a good team, and we were PVL champs again. We can’t forget that. It’s hard, though. These girls have become my family. We’re a family out here and it’s tough. Tonight is tough.” Placer (18-9) scored the first two points and had an advantage for much of the first game. Neither team led by more than two early in the opener until the Rams (18-7) rattled off six straight points, part of an 8-2 run that built a 18-13 lead. Riding the serving of sophomore defensive specialist Gabby Orteza, Placer scored the next five points to tie the score again. St. Mary’s used a Priscilla Ezeji kill and an unforced Placer error to take a 24-21 lead before committing two mistakes of their own to let the Hillgals cut the deficit to 24-23. Ezeji answered again with the decisive kill. St. Mary’s had less trouble dispatching Placer in the second game, taking advantage of some miscommunication and unforced errors by the Hillgals. The Rams took leads of 5-1 and 11-5 before extending their cushion to double digits with a 7-3 run. “We just made five or six mistakes in a row and as I’ve said all year, when you make that many mistakes in a row, and you’re playing a good team like this, you’re going to get beat,” Wright said. “When you give them seven or eight points, it’s really difficult to come back, especially in a rally scoring game.” Frustrated all night by the gymnasium’s low ceiling, Placer was overpowered early in the third game, falling behind 14-7 before calling its first timeout. “Volleyball’s a big momentum game, and we just kept giving them momentum by making a lot of errors,” Stafford said. “It was all on our part. It was definitely us beating ourselves tonight. I really think that if we could have come together a little bit better as a team and not made so many errors we had the potential and the talent to beat them.” The Hillgals fought back after falling behind 17-10. They trailed 24-15 before a Kathryn Reale kill, two Stafford aces and two St. Mary’s errors made the final margin more respectable. “They felt like they were still in it, but they’re not stupid,” Wright said. “They look up at the scoreboard. They know what’s going on. I was really proud of the way they came back in that third game and really fought back. It’s a tribute to them not giving up. “Obviously they’re a pretty amazing bunch of girls,” Wright added. “I really felt that this year was going to be the year that we were going to get through this match. I’m disappointed. I’m not going to lie about that, but we came here and we got to where we wanted to be. You can’t ask for anything else. This is where we wanted to be.” Dorsey had four of her team-high six kills in the first game. Reale and Michaela Leonard each finished with four kills, while Christina Francis added two aces. “It’s really devastating right now, but just looking back and knowing that our team — our senior girls — won the banner two years, is a really cool thing,” Reale said. “It demonstrates how much we persevered throughout those years we played on varsity.”