WATSONVILLE — Pajaro Valley head coach Jamie Tsuji was ready to let tears stream down her face after Tuesday night’s Central Coast Section playoff match against Aptos High.

Tears of joy, that is.

Playing in only their second-ever CCS playoff game, Tsuji’s Grizzlies gutted out their best game of the season and possibly the best showing any team in the program’s history has ever put forth. Still, it was not enough for No. 12 Pajaro Valley to pull the upset against No. 5 Aptos in the first round of the CCS Division II playoffs at home. The Grizzlies took the Mariners to the limits but ultimately fell 25-14, 25-17, 20-25, 26-28, 15-10, allowing visiting Aptos to advance to the CCS quarterfinal round for the fourth straight season.

It was a loss but the Grizzlies (20-11), who earned the home-court advantage by winning their first-ever league championship on Thursday, all had gigantic smiles on their faces after, knowing they had just come a handful of points from upsetting one of the premier programs in the CCS.

“Very proud. Beyond proud, actually,” Tsuji said. “Not just that they won the sets but that they lost two and that they were able to come back from that. There was times on the court where they were upset with each other but they were able to pull themselves out of that. Just all around, it was a joy to watch them play tonight. There’s just so many holes usually but tonight all of them were on the same page.”

Aptos (20-6) head coach Jacob Landel was the exact opposite on the other side of the court, shaking his head after several points as his normally dominant Mariners struggled to limit their mistakes and let the Grizzlies hang around.

“They think they’re going to walk through everyone right now,” Landel said of his Mariners, who have proven they can beat the best the CCS D-II bracket has to offer with wins over top-seeded Pacific Collegiate School and No. 4 Carmel High on their resume. “That’s the type of mentality they had when they walked into this gym.”

And it’s a mentality that Landel guaranteed his group would not have when it travels to play Carmel — the undefeated Monterey Bay League Gabilan division champion — on Thursday at 7 p.m.

“Oh, they’re going to fix it,” Landel said. “They’re going to fix it.”

A little doubt might have even started to creep into the Aptos faithful that made the short drive to Watsonville in the early points of the deciding fifth set. Several Mariners’ supporters had their arms crossed or their hands tensely pressed against their noggins as Pajaro Valley tied it up at 6-all with a kill from senior outside hitter Rafael Betancourt. But Aptos was able to pull away thanks to some opportunistic offense and a few Pajaro Valley errors down the stretch.

“Right now we’re like in shock still,” said Pajaro Valley junior outside hitter Geovanny Barajas. “We can’t believe it that we didn’t just give a match to Aptos but almost beat them. We knew we were capable of it but we just never did it.”

Barajas had a team-high 15 kills, while adding four digs and three assists for the Grizzlies. Senior setter Ruben Garcia made 30 assists and struck down seven kills. Betancourt chimed in with eight kills and freshman libero Dennar Ocampo was a busy man on defense, tallying 14 digs — most of which were of the diving variety.

Aptos sucked the life out of the Pajaro Valley gym in the first set with a suffocating 12-0 closing run to take a 1-0 advantage in the match. The second set was more of the same, as Aptos, with its advantage in athleticism, size and experience, made it a no contest behind powerful junior outside hitter Kacey Losik, who finished with a match-high 22 kills, while adding 23 assists, nine digs and seven aces.

The Grizzlies fell down 18-12 in set three but everything changed from there. A 6-0 Pajaro Valley run tied it up at 18-all and a final 5-0 run capped off by a trio of Aptos errors gave the home team and its crowd new life.

The momentum carried over into the fourth set, as the Grizzlies leapt out to an 8-1 lead on Betancourt’s smash into the hardwood through a pair of Aptos defenders that fired up the home crowd and brought the normally reserved Tsuji to her feet on the sidelines.

Pajaro Valley held Aptos at arm’s length for the majority of the set but hit a wall when it reached set point at 24-18. Powered by Losik and junior middle blocker Noah Eitzen, Aptos clawed its way back into the match and tied it up with six straight points.

The Mariners earned a match point but couldn’t capitalize. Back-to-back errors set up Pajaro Valley with a set point and Betancourt found the floor with his swing to force a deciding fifth set.

The Grizzlies jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the fifth set but Aptos quickly recovered and took a 5-4 lead on Losik’s kill. The Mariners  never looked back after a Pajaro Valley error gave them a 7-6 advantage. Senior right side hitter Jayson Guy made it 8-6 by hammering through a kill down the line and another Pajaro Valley error gave the Mariners some much-needed breathing room. It turned out to be enough to hold off the Grizzlies.

Guy and junior outside hitter Jordan Notari each finished with 13 kills, junior setter Michael Spinelli made 29 assists and junior libero Christian Segura had 27 digs.

“We were playing to not lose instead of to win,” Landel said. “We lose our confidence when it comes to that.”

The Grizzlies, meanwhile, had all the confidence in the world during the final three sets as they did everything and anything possible to keep their dream season alive.

“The crowd motivated us,” Ocampo said. “When they were cheering for us it gave us confidence. That confidence made us believe we could win.”

Pajaro Valley will lose Betancourt and Garcia to graduation but will return the seven others from its roster of nine. Tsuji said it will be extremely hard to replace her two seniors but she hopes Tuesday night’s showing sparked an excitement and passion that had not been there before.

“They don’t necessarily need to be the best players. I just think they need to have this amount of passion toward the game to grow,” Tsuji said. “I had one on the bench who hasn’t played much this season but he was trembling. He was so excited that we could’ve won this game. Just seeing that twinkle in his eye that he could be a part of this next year, that’s what I want. I just want them to understand that this game is really freaking fun if you make it that way.”

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