Story and Photos by CHACE BRYSON
Momentum is a dangerous thing in volleyball. It can wield great power. It also isn’t easy to get back once it’s been lost.
Acalanes had lost the momentum. And the only way the Dons were going to get it back was to win their first California Interscholastic Federation Girls Volleyball State title.
Despite jumping out to a two-sets-to-none advantage over Crossroads-Santa Monica in the CIF Div. III final on Dec. 3, Acalanes proceeded to spend the next 45 minutes to an hour surrendering momentum at a gushing pace.
When the Roadrunners ran away with the fourth set 25-17 to draw even with the Dons, there weren’t many in the Santiago Canyon College gymnasium who would’ve bet on the first-time finalists from Lafayette. Inside the Acalanes huddle, however, there was no panic to be found.
“We’ve been here before,” Dons coach Ernie Rodriguez said of the primary theme of the team’s discussion between the fourth and fifth sets. “We just went through a Game 5 (in the NorCal final) against Sonora a week before.
“I saw the girls get comfortable that fifth game. They were relaxed and comfortable in what they were doing.”
Crossroads, which stormed its way to the final as a No. 11 seed in the Southern California regional bracket — defeating No. 6 Westview-San Diego, No. 3 Culver City and No. 2 West Hills-Santee each in straight sets along the way — had no intention of giving up that precious momentum. The Roadrunners jumped out to an 8-5 lead midway through the final set.
“They were a great team,” Acalanes standout senior Parker Jones said afterward. “Honestly, hats off to them. They played their hearts out. We really worked together as a team and put a stop to them.”
Kills by sophomore Roxy Cummings and Jones, and a perfectly timed ace from Maddie Kalil, propelled the Dons final push. They would even the score at 10-10 and then set up a double match point with a 14-12 lead. But Crossroads fought back to tie it at 14-14.
Alex Matson set up the team’s third match point attempt with a kill.
“That one was really nerve-racking,” Matson said. “I saw the block setting up, and I sort of just hit it down the line.”
Jones brought home the championship — just the school’s second ever state title in any sport, joining the 1998-99 girls basketball team — with a kill from the back row.
“It was just all kind of a rush at the end,” said Jones, who dropped to the floor in tears after her ball careened off a Crossroads defender. “People were scrambling and I got set in the back row and I just kind of hit it with no regrets. And the girl just kind of shanked it, and then it was just unreal.”
It was fitting Jones delivered the season’s final point.
Rodriguez called the University of Pennsylvania-bound senior the team’s “backbone” all season.
“She’s the one who makes us go,” the coach said during the week leading up to the state final. “Everyone jumps on her back and goes with her.”
Jones, who finished the final with match-highs in kills (18) and digs (25) while also adding six aces, a block and a perfect 19-for-19 on serve receives, had to do all she could to keep from turning a deep crimson as the coach sang her praises in a team media session after the win.
Then afterward, while still holding the trophy, the senior went out of her way to talk about how this state title was earned up and down the roster.
There certainly wouldn’t have been many who would have predicted such a championship run. After all, Acalanes began its season with a new coach and just five returning players. The team featured just four seniors. The team suffered fits and starts over the first month and a half and really didn’t find it’s best groove until late October.
That late season run was spurred by a team meeting that allowed players to vent and re-commit to their goals.
It was Rodriguez’s idea, and he wasn’t sure where it would lead. “I wasn’t sure which way it would go,” the coach said. “I’ve done it with other teams that I’ve coached and it hasn’t always gone well.”
The Dons embraced the moment, and Jones said she saw an immediate difference.
“That really spoke to a lot of people,” she said. “They came to practice focused instead of having side conversations, and everybody just kind of worked. That was the turning point to when we moved together as a unit and we gelled together as a team.”
And then natural talent and confidence — and yes, momentum — took over and elevated Acalanes’ game. The Dons closed out the season winning 13 of 14 and getting big contributions from throughout the rotation.
“The secret to this team is definitely the energy,” Jones said. “We went into the season with only five returners. Nine new people, mostly underclassmen, too. Their energy really brings up the team. Roxy Cummings: Absolute fire. Same with (freshman setter) Lane Webster. She’s absolutely insane.
“When we’re on the court, we just turn it on and we act as a unit. It’s kind of magical. It’s something that’s just so powerful.”
She pauses for a brief moment, looks at the trophy in her hand.
“I mean, clearly it works.”
But was there a moment she was forced to doubt it? When Crossroads was shutting down the Dons’ attack and swelling with confidence with each emotional point?
If so, she didn’t show it. Neither did the rest of the Dons.
“Our passing, our defense, our serves, our serve-receive. It was just crazy,” Jones concluded. “We just worked together. I feel that was the best game we ever played. I’m so proud of every single girl. It was an entire team effort.”