SportStars Magazine

Crunch-Time Killers

Nobody puts Dublin volleyball in a corner — it only makes the Gaels better.

  Story by MIKE WOOD | Photos by PHILLIP WALTON

  There is something about five-game matches that kicks Dublin High’s girls volleyball team into overdrive. Again and again and again.

  The Gaels have made an emphatic entry into the highly competitive East Bay Athletic League, showing a knack for long-form wins. Each of their first five victories as new league members were five-game thrillers, capped with an epic home-court win over San Ramon Valley-Danville.

  It’s their magic number — 5-for-5, in five-gamers. It’s a remarkable start to life in the EBAL.

  “What Dublin has done is very impressive; I’ve never heard of a team doing that before,” said San Ramon Valley coach Brian Fujinaga of the Gaels five-win start. He has seen his share of tight volleyball matches in nearly 20 years of coaching in the East Bay.

  Dublin’s players say they thrive when it’s crunch time. If their backs are against the proverbial wall, they won’t concede that notion.

  “We have a motto: We are a Game 5 team,” Gaels senior opposite hitter Hailey Bruce said emphatically. “We are going to win Game 5 every time.”

  The Gaels’ match with San Ramon Valley was volleyball at its tensest, walking-the-win-or-lose-highwire best, with a final game where the momentum repeatedly teetered from team to team. The end result was a marathon 16-25, 25-10, 26-24, 22-25, 18-16 Gaels win, their 16th straight to open the season.

Ashley Hedt, right, and Natasha Villa  “This definitely feels great,” said junior outside hitter Breyan Ashley, enjoying the aftermath of the Gaels’ win, which was one to relish. The Wolves have reached the NCS Division I championship match seven of the last nine seasons, winning three titles in that span. Upstart Dublin has yet to win a league title in girls volleyball, much less an NCS crown.

  Ashley often is the driving force. The Sept. 22 matchup with San Ramon Valley on Sept. 22 was a strong case in point.

  Though Dublin led game 5 early, it was San Ramon Valley that seized the advantage, fueled by 6-foot-1 middle blocker Maddie Sehrt. Her powerful hitting helped set the Wolves up with three match-point opportunities, as San Ramon Valley held leads of 14-12 and 16-15. Upon following behind 16-15, Ashley proceeded to rattle off three successive kills — each with added emphasis — to give the Gaels what at times appeared to be an improbable win.

  “Ashley was really fantastic against us,” Fujinaga said. “She was hitting with authority, passing really well. … It was really impressive, even from the vantage point of the opposing coach.”

  However, nothing comes easily in the EBAL. In its following league match, Dublin (16-1 overall, 5-1 in league matches) finally met defeat for the first time this season, a 28-26, 25-19, 25-23 loss to two-time defending NCS champion Monte Vista-Danville on Sept. 27. Another day, another combative match in the EBAL.

  “It’s a compliment to the level of competition in this league, and it is a compliment to to the work our girls have put in,” Dublin coach Amy Lopez said of her team’s impressive start.

  Barely a month into the season, the impact of NCS-realignment newcomers, Dublin and Dougherty Valley (which is 13-5 overall and 4-2 in the EBAL), has been felt.

  A year ago, Dublin went 14-14 overall and 3-9 as a member of the Diablo Foothill Athletic League, a record that placed them sixth in the seven-team league. Though the Gaels were paired with the likes of area power Campolindo-Moraga in their old league, their new one is chock full of competitive NCS Division I schools.

  “With Dublin, a lot of us didn’t know what to expect when it came into the EBAL,” Fujinaga said. “I don’t think anyone was ready for how good Dublin is.”

Breyan Ashley  Success starts with a good foundation, and nine of Dublin’s players were on the team last season. Several have played together on club teams and back through middle school. They are almost like family.

  “It’s our family bond that comes out when we’re in these close situations,” senior middle blocker and outside hitter Ashley Hedt said.

  Having the stamina to thrive in a fifth game is important to Lopez, who started at Dublin in 2004 as athletic trainer and was co-head coach with Andrea Ramirez for the previous four seasons. Ramirez decided to step away from the high school game after last season to focus on club coaching, so Lopez is now Dublin’s sole head coach.

  “Conditioning is such a huge aspect of my overall theme of the program.” Lopez said. “We are very lucky this year to have added a strength and conditioning coach to our staff at Dublin who has been a great addition. But even prior to this season, I placed a lot of time and effort into conditioning. Conditioning wins matches.”

  And it builds confidence.

  “As a team we set a goal that we’re never going to lose a game 5,” Hedt said. “So far it’s working. It’s something we work on it at practice, so when it happens, we are prepared.”

  The team’s solid start has sparked a spirited fan base at the school. Lopez points to the work of assistant coach Kelly Beck, who teaches leadership at the school, in building supportive crowds both at home and at road games.

  “It’s a special time to be at Dublin right now,” Lopez said.

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