On Tuesday May 25th, at the Acalanes Freshman Lady Dons’ “End of Season” Banquet, Coach Roman quipped: “This team…has swagger… And swag…is a good thing to have.” The following day, the Lady Dons swaggered into the Foothill Middle School gym where they would face a Northgate Bronco team that looked eerily similar to themselves: cool, confident, intimidating, graceful, hard-hitting, tenacious, and most alarmingly…full of “swag.”
For the Freshman Lady Dons, it was like looking in the mirror—the ultimate selfie—a TikTok worthy challenge that, unbeknownst to both teams, would evolve into a grueling marathon laced with spectacular highlights, to be sure, and one legendary volley that would make Coach Roman’s heart rate skyrocket to a post-match 109. (No joke).
The Broncos pounced on the Acalanes Lady Dons early, building a staggering 7-1 lead which effectively put everyone in the gym on notice that the Dons have met their match. And what a match it was… Having battled the Dons weeks earlier, the Broncos knew what they were up against, recognizing that the only way to defend against the Dons’ formidable frontline would be to play over the net which they did—in spades. They would also need to serve bullets consistently and, at times, sacrifice their bodies to field the missiles that would surely rain on them.
With the return of the Dons’ hard-hitting Oppo Monica Dikova playing alongside fellow gunners Tea Sloane Smith, Chloe Lockwood and Mika Bocobo, the Broncos would have to play out of their heads even if just to keep it close. Well, the Broncos did more than that. Much more. Point after point, the Broncos successfully executed on their game plan, performing more like a seasoned varsity team than a squad of ninth graders. The Broncos were resilient, blocking and handling every high-velocity kill attempt the Dons could muster, then skillfully setting up their outside hitters who fired back on the Dons with impressive, targeted kills of their own. With Acalanes back on the uncharted territory of their heels, Tea, the Dons’ standout Middle Blocker made an adjustment that would deliver the Dons’ first side out—not with an aggressive overhand kill, but with a graceful, perfectly placed flare over the fingertips of the Broncos’ blockers. Over the course of the first set and the rest of the match, Tea’s airborne decisions would mean the difference between victory and defeat for the Dons. With Tea’s split-second read of the defense, alternating on a dime between savagery and finesse, the Dons clawed their way back into the set, punctuated by a cannon-shot serve by Libero Jade Profilio that not only tightened the score to 8-5, but conveyed a sharp, DoorDash-esque reminder to the Broncos that they were playing the Acalanes freakin’ Dons. Each of the ensuing 16 points proved as thrilling as the last; on both sides of the net, bodies were flying across the floor, full-extension dives culminating in spectacular one-handed gets, Eva McGrath, of course, notwithstanding. Capitalizing on an immaculate set by Monica, Chloe tied the frame at 17 with a riveting cross-court kill. But the Broncos would not be deterred, forcing a side out on the very next serve. Back and forth the set would go, Chloe serving up a blazing ace to lock the set once again at 19. The set went from 20-19 to 20-20 to 21-21 to 22-22 before the Broncos would ultimately prevail 25-22.
Now, every Acalanes Freshman Lady Dons fan knows that this team hates to lose. I mean, they hate to lose. That said, it was no surprise that the beginning of the second set was dominated by Mika who served yet another memo to the Broncos with a pair of rockets to make the game 0-2 before fearlessly diving into the Dons’ sideline (the first of two such efforts) to keep the ball alive in what would result in another point for the Dons. As expected, the Broncos responded in kind and now both teams were playing at an extraordinarily high level, their respective “swag” on full display.
Much like the first set, Tea was everywhere, making all the right decisions at just the right moments with perfectly timed blocks, pushing raindrops and slinging arrows. Amazingly, the Broncos were able fight back and lock the game at 8-8, but that was as close as they would come. The Dons caught fire and would decisively pull away. Kill, dig, tap, ace, block, kill, ace, tap – the Dons figured out the slightest of vulnerabilities in the Broncos’ otherwise stout defense and successfully exploited them. Tea’s stellar play in the second set seemed to fuel the collective passion of her teammates who were relentless in their pursuit of victory – from Mia Iams’ astounding repulsion of Northgate’s most vicious serves to the dizzying ubiquity of Eva and Jade to the electric service and ball-striking of Mika, Monica, and Chloe to the flawless contributions of Julia Mannering and Paige Passalacqua both of whom had effective blocks and hits during the final stretch of the second set. Fittingly, it would be Eva’s honor to put the Broncos out of their misery with an impressive string of heat-seeking serves, capped off by one of the most exciting rallies of the match and a 15-25 set victory for the mighty Dons.
With the match tied at one set apiece, the third set of Wednesday’s match (yes, they played three) featured some of the most fantastic volleyball anyone could have hoped to witness; and it happened in a middle school gym of all places. Reminiscent of the legendary Borg vs. McEnroe Wimbledon in 1980, this was to be a short set (to 15). In summary, the score was tied 7 times (1-1, 6-6, 7-7, 8-8, 10-10, 12-12 and 13-13) and highlighted by 6 lead changes. Jade spent as much time on the floor as on her feet, impossibly reviving points that most Liberos would have given up on, fumbled and lost. Elise Fox gave Tea a much-needed respite at the beginning of the set and held her ground with solid frontline play. Whenever it seemed the Broncos had the upper hand, Mika would swoop in out of nowhere and land a soul-crushing kill or finger tap.
Then it happened… The scoreboard flipped to 11-10 in favor of Northgate when these two teams engaged in what would become the most memorable point of the season, perhaps even in the history of Acalanes Freshman Volleyball. For 1 minute and 53 spectacular, suspense-filled seconds, the ball crossed the net a whopping 29 times, both teams refusing to surrender to their exhaustion. Regardless of position, everyone on the court was digging, diving and setting—Liberos, Outside Hitters, Oppos, Backrow – everyone. Both of the Middle Blockers continually pounded the rock into the opposing defense only to recoil and mobilize for whatever the other team had in store. For nearly 2 minutes, those in attendance were treated to an offensive and defensive clinic, a profound demonstration of what it means to be “in the zone,” all 12 players working towards a common goal – teamwork personified.
From the bleachers, it was a fast-paced, nail-biting affair, truly a beehive of activity. But for the girls, the ball seemed to move in slow motion; every rotation, every groove of the ball visible and…gettable. When the Northgate Broncos finally won the point, the crowd exploded involuntarily, bestowing upon the athletes an ovation of gratitude for their remarkable efforts. Indeed, the Broncos may have won the battle, having stretched their lead to 12-10, but within minutes, the Acalanes Lady Dons would win the proverbial war. Carried by the unwavering, enthusiastic support of Coaches Roman, Haley and Alan and their fellow teammates screaming from the sideline, the Lady Dons would reclaim their signature swag and execute on their own game plan which never incorporates the “L” word as an option, sealing a most impressive 13-15 set victory and the match while, at the same time, earning a place in Acalanes Volleyball lore…