HILMAR -- It's taken Caitlin Benning roughly 10 volleyball seasons to recognize the holes on the opposite side of the court.
Experience made the difference for Benning and the Hilmar High volleyball team on Tuesday in a five-game playoff victory over Escalon. The Yellowjackets defeated Escalon 21-25, 25-17, 25-21, 13-25, 15-11 in their first round Division IV match.
Benning led Hilmar (28-3) with 24 kills, placing the ball right where Cougars weren't standing time and time again.
"I've been playing since the fifth grade, about 10 seasons with club and school," Benning said. "This year I really started to see the whole court. It's just time spent in the game."
Benning wasn't used to having such a large crowd on hand, though. Approximately 400 fans, including a raucous student section, gave Hilmar a boost, especially after Escalon (26-6) tied the match at two games a piece.
"We talked a lot more on the court," she said. "Usually we're such a calm team, but we were so pumped. Once we got into the game, the adrenaline got to us."
For every impressive hit on either side, there were easily twice as many hit long. Escalon coach Teresa Williamson said her young team's relative lack of playoff experience played a factor in hitting and setting errors.
"My team never gave up at all," Williamson said. "It's hard to come into Hilmar. They got a little momentum and it was on our shoulders to finish."
Sophomore Kaitlyn Brayton led Escalon with 23 kills. Corrie Dollarhide, one of just two seniors, had 23 digs.
The fifth set was the sharpest, with both teams hustling in long rallies. Tied at 9-9, Hilmar pulled away thanks to an Escalon hitting error and double touch. Hilmar's Lindsay Miguel tipped the ball to put the Yellowjackets ahead 12-9.
The lead was enough to edge Escalon. The Cougars made two more hitting errors, then bobbled the ball at the net after another Miguel tip to win the set.
"One of the things that's concerning is we never do things the easy way, it's always got to be hard," Hilmar coach Mike Alvernaz said with a smile. "It was hard to serve (Escalon) tough because they're such a fine passing team. In the fourth game we just had a mental collapse. We resolved it in the fifth game."