BELLARMINE-JEFFERSON HIGH — The Bellarmine-Jefferson girls' volleyball team took the No. 1 seed of the Southern Section Division IV-A playoffs within one game of elimination — an exceptional feat considering its opponent hadn't dropped a game going into the match.
Leading two games to one, however, the Guards dropped the fourth, then ultimately fell in the deciding fifth game, to a Hemet squad that proved worthy of its standing, ousting Bell-Jeff in the postseason for a second consecutive season.
The all-too familiar opponent and Mountain Press League champion defeated Bell-Jeff in the semifinals last year, giving Guards Coach Miguel Segura and company extra motivation going into Saturday night's quarterfinal contest.
The extra incentive was evident throughout, as the Guards played with energy and heart, but in the end, fell short again to the Bulldogs in a thrilling, but upsetting, 21-25, 25-16, 25-27, 25-14, 15-8 home loss.
"The revenge factor was definitely there," said Segura after a post-game meeting with his distraught players. "It was a great battle. They fought back. We fought back."
It looked to be Bell-Jeff's night after the first game in which the Guards (14-7-2) never trailed, playing with intensity that the team was hoping would set a tone for the rest of the way.
Clearly caught off guard by the energy, the Bulldogs (20-5) kept it close throughout, but were on an uphill climb the entire way after the teams traded the first two points of the game.
"They came out with a lot of energy," said Hemet Coach Jewel Robinson, whose team — like the Guards in the Santa Cruz League — went undefeated in league play. "You can sense that they came out with a little extra motivation."
The teams played to six ties in the second game, with the last coming at 10-10. Thereafter, the Bulldogs took control and closed out the game on a 15-6 run, setting up an important third game.
Much like the second game, the third was a see-saw battle that had 12 ties and four lead changes. Hemet looked to be on its way to the commanding two-games-to-one advantage when they held a 20-14 lead. But the Guards took seven of the next eight points to knot the score at 21.
Similarly to the rest of the game, the teams traded big points, tying the score on three occasions, including at 25-25. In front of a ruckus crowd that had about as many Hemet fans as Bell-Jeff locals, the Guards took the final two points, putting them one game away from their second straight semifinal match.
It would also be in the third game where the Guards would lose their top outside hitter and captain, Jocelyn Cervantes, to an injury.
The injury, combined with a ferocious attack from the Bulldogs in the fourth game that saw them score 16 of the final 21 points to force a fifth and deciding game, took away any momentum the Guards had from winning the fourth game.
Hemet was in control throughout the fifth, taking a 4-3 early lead and never looking back.
"We still had to come out and fight," said Robinson said about winning the fourth game. "It had been up and down. We played a great team out there."
"I don't want to make excuses, but we had them at 2-1 and then Jocelyn goes out, so we had to run a couple different sets," Segura said.
Cervantes led the team with 18 kills, most of them set up by Amanda Maalouf, who finished the match with 24 assists.
"I'm proud to be on this Bell-Jeff sideline tonight," said Segura, whose team is a six-time Santa Cruz League champion. "They played their hearts out."