On the brink of its first Sac-Joaquin Section Division III title, the Sonora High volleyball team inexplicably gassed out.
That’s all the opportunity Cinderella needed.
Trailing 2-1, 10th-seeded El Dorado continued its improbable postseason run with a thrilling five-set victory over the Wildcats, 25-22, 20-25, 20-25, 25-17, 15-10.
With little experience in marathon matches, Sonora coach Amy Wahlbrink said top-seeded Sonora “mentally checked out” with a chance to finish the upstart Cougars.
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“We always go in terms of five. We want to be the first to five (points), first 10, first to 15,” Wahlbrink said. “We like to set smaller goals for ourselves. We had a hard time finishing games tonight, which normally isn’t our weakness. We usually finish a match when we’re ahead. Tonight, we just couldn’t do that.”
The championship was the Cougars’ ninth overall and first since 1998. El Dorado has won seven consecutive matches and eliminated four top seeds en route to the title.
The Cougars swept No. 7 El Camino and No. 2 Woodland to start the D-III tournament, and then ousted defending champion and No. 3 Christian Brothers in the semifinal, 3-1.
Eventually, they got the top seed to tap, too.
Sonora has appeared in a section final in each of the last five season, but is 0-2 since making the jump to Division III. The Wildcats won three straight D-IV crowns from 2013-15.
Both teams advance to the CIF Northern California tournament, which begins Nov. 15.
Wahlbrink did her best to turn her team’s focus to Monday’s practice and next week’s game.
“They should still be proud,” Wahlbrink said. “They came. They showed up. And they worked hard to be here. It just wasn’t our night. They found a weakness in our defense and we couldn’t stop their outside hitters.”
Sonora is 0-2 in five-set matches and buckled beneath the pressure of a winner-take-all fifth game for a section title.
El Dorado went on 6-1 run to seize control of the fifth game, and then moved to match point on the serve of freshman Ella Harm.
“It’s not something we’re used to doing,” said Wahlbrink, whose team lost to Lincoln of Stockton in five sets on Sept. 20. “Mentally, we didn’t have it in the fifth game. We were tired and mentally checked out. It wasn’t our moment.”
Riley Patterson paced the Wildcats from the outside position and the service stripe. She helped give Sonora 2-1 lead with a wicked jump serve. With a high toss and a dipping serve, she recorded an ace late in Game 3 that propelled the Wildcats to a 25-20 victory.
What’s a Cinderella story without a comeback?
Danae Ford and Harm put Sonora on its heels late in games 4 and 5 with their serving, while Caitlin Dillon, the Cougars’ top offensive threat, was the closer. She finished both matches with drives into the back corner.
The loss snapped the Wildcats’ three-match winning streak.