By Miguel A. Melendez, Staff Writer
CYPRESS – It was like a dream.
That’s the best way to describe the season for San Gabriel Academy’s girls volleyball team, which in its 47-year history had never gone past the second round of the playoffs.
The third-seeded Eagles soaked in the experience and proudly hoisted the runner-up plaque after a 13-25, 17-25, 22-25 loss at the hands of Firebaugh of Lynwood in the CIF-Southern Section Division 5A championship match Saturday night at Cypress College.
San Gabriel Academy’s dream season will continue, though, when the CIF state playoff pairings are announced today, a finals appearance virtually assuring the Eagles a berth in the Division 5 Southern California Regionals.
San Gabriel Academy has won the Westside League title three consecutive seasons and four of the past five, but the third-seeded Eagles (19-7) dreamed about a deep playoff run, and they finally got it.
Senior Ali Santanello, who finished with six kills and four blocks, said the experience of playing on the grandest stage was a dream come true.
“It’s a breathtaking experience,” Santanello said. “It’s an experience you almost can’t describe. We’re actually here and we made it.
“For a lot of us it was like a dream, and even after you pop it, you’re just honored to be here.”
San Gabriel Academy won its second-round and quarterfinal matches with ease, sweeping Riverside Christian and Coastal Christian, respectively, before a five-set grudge match against Pacific Lutheran.
The Eagles took pride in storming back from a two-set deficit against Pacific Lutheran before prevailing, and San Gabriel Academy found itself in a similar position against Firebaugh, the Harbor League champion that swept top seed Coast Union in the semifinals.
“These girls, even though we got swept, never gave up,” San Gabriel Academy coach Derek Duran said. “You look at the girls here and it feels like we won, and that’s because we have a great sense of accomplishment.”
The Falcons (20-0) dominated the first two sets but had to fend off a pesky Eagles team that led by as much as 15-9 in the third set before Firebaugh won 11 of the next 13 points to take a 20-17 lead, forcing San Gabriel Academy to call a timeout.
The Eagles truly played the role of David this season. San Gabriel Academy fielded an eight-member team from a school with an enrollment of only 209, compared to Firebaugh’s 1,500 students and 14-member team.
Firebaugh, for its part, made quite a remarkable run. This was the Falcons’ first-ever playoff appearance, and they won the title with second-year coach Javier Gonzalez. Firebaugh will also advance to the CIF state playoffs when the Division 3 Southern California Regional pairings are released today.
“Volleyball is not a big sport where we come from,” Gonzalez said. “Some of these girls never touched a volleyball until they reached high school. To get this far is beyond words.”