Since losing to Dos Pueblos in straight sets back on Sept. 19, the San Marcos girls volleyball team has been different.
Well, kind of.
One day after that defeat, San Marcos took part in the annual Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions. There, the girls found themselves down 2-0 in the first round against Westview.
Instead of caving in, San Marcos came back and won 3-2. The Royals then beat San Clemente and Corona Del Mar, two top programs, earning a bid in the championship game for the first time in at least 15 years.
Despite a loss in the championship game, San Marcos looked like it had found a new sense of confidence, one it would need to win the Channel League.
Last week, the Royals picked up two sweeping victories over Santa Ynez and Cabrillo to end the first round of Channel League girls’ volleyball action.
But, despite earning two 3-0 wins, that San Marcos team did not look like the one at the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions.
That team was something special, one that played with resounding energy that was tough to match. Just ask San Clemente and Corona Del Mar.
Well, that team made a reappearance Tuesday night at Santa Barbara High School’s home gym in the final match between Santa Barbara and San Marcos this season, with the Royals earning a 3-0 win with set scores of 25-10, 25-6, 25-22.
“Last week we were not playing our strongest and we were disappointed we could not play at our highest level but today we were super pumped. This crosstown rivalry is a fun game and I could sense our energy is where it needed to be,” senior libero Grace Matthews said.
“Our team goes in waves but this game was a nice reminder that we are still that team that we were at the T.O.C and that we should be able to consistently play that way.”
In the first set, San Marcos was fantastic. It helped that Santa Barbara committed nine attack errors.
“We just could not put the ball down. We tried to do shots and it was not working so we were getting really frustrated with ourselves,” Santa Barbara senior Reese Kelley said.
The Royals’ defense also played a huge part in the Dons’ offensive struggles, with constant pressure at the net from Brynn Sofro and others. Sofro would finish with seven blocks on the night.
“We really elevated our level of play tonight, especially at the net, and especially compared to the last time we played Santa Barbara. We just got up and challenged,” Sofro said.
Offensively, in the first set, San Marcos jumped out to a quick 13-4 lead and never looked back.
That pattern was much of the same in the second set when the Royals again jumped out to a 13-4 lead and again never looked back.
Through the first two sets, San Marcos’s Taylor Wilson had nine kills and one ace while Sofro had four kills, including an ace of her own, and Ava Cole had seven assists.
In the third set, however, Santa Barbara figured something out. The Dons fell behind early, 5-2, but battled back to eventually take a 10-8 lead.
San Marcos then used a 7-0 run to take a 15-10 lead and force a Santa Barbara timeout. A pair of kills from Anabel Caesar brought the Dons within three and then an attack error by San Marcos made it 15-13.
“We realized we needed to get our game together. We don’t play like that and it was our last game against SM for the year and for seniors it was our last game against them ever and we realized that and we put our hearts into it,” Kelley said.
“Playing against SM and against your friends you just want to give it your best shot and in that final set we did.”
Down 23-20, Kelley put away a huge kill to bring the Dons within two and forced San Marcos to call their first timeout of the night. Kelley finished with a team-high seven kills and one ace.
Out of the timeout, San Marcos reminded itself what it needed to do to get the win.
“It came down to us calming down, taking a breath and reminding ourselves that we got this,” Matthews said.
At 24-22, Santa Barbara battled, but a kill from senior Bella Johnson sealed the Dons fate and gave the Royals win.
Four of Johnson’s six kills came in the final set while Wilson finished with 11 for the night and Sofro added six kills and two aces.
For Santa Barbara (4-12, 3-3), Tuesday marked another loss in a tough, rebuilding year for the program, but it has not been in vain.
“At the beginning of the year, we did not know each other, at all. We each probably knew like one person the team. But now, I can honestly say we all like each other and we are all friends and that has helped us grow as a team,” Kelley said.
As for San Marcos, the key for the team is figuring out how to play like it did on Tuesday, but always.
“It comes down to playing with a lot of energy. The skills are there but sometimes the energy falls and we get into a funk,” Matthews said.
Matthews is usually the one that gets the teams’ energy going. Without failure, before every set, she runs to every single teammate and gives them a high-five, something she “loves” doing because it’s her job to “pump everybody up.”
During sets, she is a fantastic libero as evident by her 16 digs on Tuesday.
“One of our other captains, Bella (Johnson) mentioned this was our last time playing Santa Barbara and that hit me. I knew I had to give it my all and I knew I didn’t want to lose to Santa Barbara. I am really happy this result is my last game against Santa Barbara,” Matthews said.
Santa Barbara hosts Santa Ynez at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday while San Marcos hosts Lompoc at 6 p.m. on Thursday.