Following her team’s 25-14, 25-13, 12-25, 25-16 Trans-Valley League volleyball victory Wednesday over Escalon, Hilmar High volleyball coach Patti Harris stood in a nearly empty Strom Gym and pointed to the custom portraits of her players that hang on the wall.
One by one, she called out their respective strengths.
“There’s Sara Theodozio,” said Harris. “She’s the best right back you’re ever going to see.
“And there’s Danielle Couchman,” she continued. “Don’t forget about Danielle. Nobody ever mentions Danielle.”
That’s because Couchman, like most everybody on Hilmar’s roster, tends to get overshadowed by senior Emily Baptista, the Yellowjackets’ senior outside hitter who has verbally committed to play at the University of the Pacific next year.
Baptista, who at 6-foot-2 casts a long shadow, showed off the skills that drew the interest of Pacific and earned her the league’s last two Most Valuable Player trophies, with a third likely to come shortly.
After winning the first two games with embarrassing ease, the Cougars stormed back to take the third game just as handily. Tied at 9-9 in the fourth game, Escalon had stolen all the momentum and had the champs on their heels.
That’s when Baptista took over, delivering four cannon-ball kills that helped push Hilmar to a 16-11 advantage.
Not to be outdone, Couchman had a kill and a stuff block during the surge, but it was a Baptista service ace that made it 20-12 and another kill that put the Jackets up 21-12, effectively ending the contest.
“We came in really ready,” said Baptista, who helped her team improve to 6-0 in the TVL and 24-5 overall. “We knew Escalon was going to give us a fight.”
Escalon coach Kayla Kootstra had her team well-prepared, too, though it wasn’t evident until the third game.
“We’ve been gearing up for Hilmar and we’ve been talking about this game,” said Kootstra, whose team fell to 5-1 in the TVL, 14-11 overall. “And we didn’t come out and do one thing that we talked about.”
During the break after the second game, Kootstra could be heard challenging her players, telling them they had to compete and they had to do it immediately.
They did just that, jumping out to a 9-2 lead before the Yellowjackets called timeout. The halt in action didn’t slow the Cougars, who won six of the next seven points to make it 15-3. They cruised from there, winning the last four points on a Hilmar serve into the net, an ace serve by Jaden Scott, and back-to-back kills from Nicole Sarkozy and Taylor Laugero.
During that third game, though it was desperately out of reach for Hilmar, Baptista showed signs of heating up with a couple of booming hits that cut the lead to 21-12
“Do we rely too much on Emily at times? Sure. But what am I, stupid?” Harris joked. “But it’s not just all her. You’ve got to have team play and you’ve got to play well together.”