Last season, the U-Prep volleyball team rolled into the Northern Section Division IV finals against Pierce with a 30-5 record and No. 1 seed.
The Panthers lost in straight sets to the Bears, but regrouped and advanced to the NorCal regional semifinals.
This season, the boxes have been checked off for the Panthers.
Northern Athletic League title.
First-round playoff win.
On Tuesday, the Panthers added another check – a trip back to D-IV finals – with a 27-25, 25-17, 25-19 win over Pierce. U-Prep, the No. 1 seed against, plays No. 2 West Valley at Red Bluff High School at 5 p.m.. The Eagles, who lost both NAL matches against U-Prep, were 3-0 winners over Willows.
But in order to get to the Eagles, the Panthers had to battle through an emotional, back-and-forth first set and the absence of junior Madison Kremer, their leading hitter coming into the match. The younger Kremer sister rolled an ankle in a 38-36 third-set win over Yreka last Thursday and was in uniform on Tuesday, but didn’t see the court.
Instead, the Panthers three-headed hitting attack – Madison Kremer, senior Kennedy Kremer and freshman Kaitlyn Cabral – turned into a duo with Ashlee Kraft, Kaleia Mizuta and Emma Friar chipping in as well.
“I wanted to help those guys get back to the section, for some of them it’s their last ride,” Cabral said.
U-Prep was aided by 11 hitting errors in the first set as Pierce never trailed by more than three points in the set, but could only find the equalizer and not take the lead late in the set.
With U-Prep senior setter Madi Friebel serving up 23-21, Pierce’s Emily Ehrke pushed a winner to a soft spot in the Panthers’ defense to make it 23-22 and the Bears tied it as U-Prep miscommunication allowed the Bears to tie it at 23-all as the ball fell between three Panthers on the next point. Pierce sandwiched hitting errors around a Panther unforced error before Ehrke found Alexis Dorantes for a kill and a 25-all tie.
But the Panthers staunched the Bears momentum and thoughts of an upset as Friebel found Kennedy Kremer for a front-row kill and then Kremer pasted a ball for a winner on a long return by the Bears.
Friebel would dish up 32 assists on the night, finding Kremer and Cabral for 13 kills each. Gigi Elizarraras had 22 digs, often plucking the ball in a crucial spot for the Panthers.
“I knew they were going to come out and battle,” Cabral said. “We beat them there earlier in the year and I knew we couldn’t let them go on long runs because if we did they were going to take the game over.”
After surviving the first set, the Panthers made quick work in the second set, jumping out to leads of 13-6, 21-13 before Cabral landed four kills over the six points of the set.
“Tonight, I knew I had to step up,” Cabral said. “I wasn’t nervous, but more excited. I wanted to do this for girls like Madi Friebel.”
But as quickly as U-Prep dispatched Pierce in the second, the Panthers seemed to coast through the middle of the third set. Friebel found Cabral for a kill and a Bears’ hitting error made it 11-5 and the hosts would boost the lead to 20-10 before Pierce took advantage of four Panther errors, two of their own aces and three kills to bring the score to 23-18.
“When we got the lead in the third, we sunk in a little and we need to keep it up,” Carbral said.
But the Panthers wouldn’t allow the match to go beyond three sets as the Friebel-to-Cabral connection made it 24-18. After a U-Prep hitting error delayed the victory, Kremer received the serve and found Friebel in the front court who set up Friar for the match-ending kill to the back corner.
The Panthers posted 3-0 sweeps over West Valley in both league matchups, though the last time the Eagles were without hitter Rose Matthews.
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