ESCALON -- The cautious smiles that creased the faces of the Ripon Christian High volleyball players disappeared.
Coach Tiger Shelton walked without expression to the opposite bench.
The Knights had not lost a set, outside regular-season tournament action, since Sept. 4 at St. Mary's. But drop one they did, and Escalon's Adalia Cajias' crosscourt kill clinched the 25-22 match-extending victory in Game 3.
The Knights were tested Tuesday night, but they prevailed 3-1 in an entertaining Sac-Joaquin Section Division 4 volleyball semifinal.
"We stepped back a little bit," Shelton admitted. "We were kind of (mad) it happened."
That said, Ripon Christian (27-6) is not your standard issue No. 4 seed. The Knights will return to UC Davis on Thursday night in pursuit of their sixth consecutive title, the first five in Division V, against last year's runner-up Bear River.
They hope their mini-scare at Escalon, which they survived 25-11, 25-21, 22-25, 25-22 will serve them well.
"We were a little overconfident. Escalon was good. They weren't going to crumble," said junior Andie Shelton, Tiger's daughter and a nationally recognized setter. "We said in the huddle, 'Play your best, or it might be your last game.' "
But by then, the top-seeded Cougars (25-6) regained their mojo in front of a three-quarters-filled gym. They started painfully slow but corrected some service-return errors and eventually rode the swinging right arm of point machine Cassidy Caton (31 kills). RC tried everything except tackling her, to no avail.
Ripon Christian rallied from a four-point deficit to lead 22-21 in the third set before Caton escorted her team to the win. The top-seeded Cougars refused to lose easily.
"She (Caton) led tonight," Escalon coach Teresa Williamson praised.
The Cougars' momentum extended to the fourth set, during which they led 9-6 and were even 14-14. Enter the 5-foot-9 Shelton (27 assists, six kills) with a back-to-back touch and punch at the net to launch a nine-point run.
Ripon Christian does not lack power in Kristy Van Diver (13 kills), Stephanie Van De Pol (11 kills), Brittany Petlansky (six kills) and Teagan Manus, but Shelton's glue holds the Knights together. So does libero Kaylie Colyn (24 digs).
Still, Escalon did not submit. Trailing 24-16 with the RC crowd on its feet, the Cougars shook their house with a six-point run behind sophomore server Brooke Silva. Only when Silva served long did Ripon Christian exhale.
Williamson surrounded Caton and senior libero Nicole Bianchi with several underclassmen for the playoffs. Loss aside, Caton and the Cougars will remain a force.
"We have a shot at taking something next year," Caton promised.
For RC, the future is only a day away.
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2302.