High School Sports

No longer a bridesmaid: Hilmar volleyball wins elusive Sac-Joaquin Section title

The Hilmar Yellowjackets celebrate a 3-0 win over Bret Harte during the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV Championship match at Gregori High School in Modesto, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017.
The Hilmar Yellowjackets celebrate a 3-0 win over Bret Harte during the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV Championship match at Gregori High School in Modesto, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

Hannah Pearce set the ball blindly, flipping it over her shoulder to Mikela Labno.

With a big arm swing – and some serious springs – Labno smashed the ball down the line … off a Bret Harte player … and into the corner for a point.

The Hilmar High volleyball team is a bridesmaid no more.

With precision and power, the top-seeded Yellowjackets broke their Sac-Joaquin Section postseason curse, sweeping No. 2 Bret Harte in the Division IV finals, 25-19, 25-13, 25-11.

Both teams will advance to the CIF Northern California tournament, which begins Nov. 15, but only one moves on as the Sac-Joaquin Section champion.

After a series of close-calls, Hilmar is finally that team.

“I told the girls going into the match that they’re the best they can be right now,” coach Patti Harris said. “Everything we worked for at the beginning of this season, they did. They did everything correct out there and there was a lot of energy. We were ready to go.”

The blue banner is the program’s first and snapped a dubious streak. Hilmar had lost four consecutive Division IV finals, including three straight to Sonora (2013-15), the Division III runner-up, and last year to Trans-Valley League rival Ripon.

For the first time, the winner’s circle belonged to Hilmar, a small-school with a passionate fan base that turned out in force at Gregori High.

“This is a big deal. It feels good,” Harris said. “Every year is a different team. This team, I knew from the get-go, since the summer before school even started, that they were going to be a really special team. I just knew it, and they proved it. … They were solid. They are a team.

“I’ve been fortunate to have some really great players. It’s a great community and they produce really good girl athletes -- and tall ones, too. Every year is different, and this team, stars aligned and … boom here it is.”

The Yellowjackets savored the spotlight, too. After Mariah Ahid, four-year player, finished the Bullfrogs with a cross-court kill, the bench emptied onto the floor. A mob of green and gold bounced near the net, players and coaches diving in and out of hugs.

Later, Harris fought back tears as she accepted the banner and a gold volleyball from section officials.

“I’m not an openly emotional person like this, but I was pretty happy for them,” Harris said. “I’ve got a lot of girls who have been here four times, three times and two times, so it’s a really seasoned team coming into sections.”

Seniors Pearce, Ahid and Erin Benning made their fourth straight finals appearance. For three years, they lived with the heartache. For three years, they’ve hung runner-up plaques in the hallway of Strom Gym.

Each helped lift the dark cloud on Saturday.

“They’ve always been the foundation of this team,” Harris said of her seniors. “They held key positions and they’re also team captains. They did a really good of helping this young team learn how to handle stress on the court.”

Pearce had 43 assists, steering the offense from the middle of the floor. Ahid was at her best late in games. She punctuated an opening set win with a diving dig, forcing Bret Harte into a hitting error, and then triggered a jubilant celebration with a kill from the right sideline.

And Benning, with her tall frame and long arms, fueled a 9-2 charge in the third game with a block.

Afterward, Pearce clutched the gold volleyball and walked slowly to the team room.

So poised and in control for two hours during the match, Pearce struggled to make sense of the moment.

Or her emotions.

“It was really emotional, but at the same time it was really, really exciting,” she said. “I don’t know … all of our nerves finally came out. We just showed it on the court. We were ready.

“Coming in, we were like, ‘It’s just another game. It’s not sections. We’re out to play another game.’ The past few years we got it in our head.”

Ahid finished with 12 kills and nine digs, while Labno, a freshman with a record-setting vertical, paced the offense with 16 kills. Labno is a high jumper in the spring with a personal-best of 5 feet, 4 inches set as an eighth grader.

Michaela Peterson led the team with 10 digs and one ace, while Kayley Souza and Olivia Peterson combined for seven blocks.

Bret Harte offered little resistance. Hilmar trailed just once in three games, 3-1 at the start of the match.

The Yellowjackets quickly erased the deficit and took control of the first set with a 7-2 run.