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November 14, 2019
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Girls volleyball: Mariners advance to CCS championship

APTOS — The Aptos High girls’ volleyball team finally got over its biggest hump in the Central Coast Section playoffs.

The No. 3 Mariners defeated No. 2 Soquel High in four sets, 26-24, 25-11, 22-25, 25-19, on Thursday in the Division III semifinals.

It was the first time since 2015 that Aptos beat Soquel in the CCS playoffs. The Knights eliminated the Mariners in the D-III final the past two years.

They will play top-seeded Burlingame High (22-11)—a four-set winner over No. 5 El Camino in the other semifinal—for the CCS title on Saturday at Palo Alto High at 12:30 p.m.

“It’s awesome. I’m so excited,” Aptos senior Natalia Ackerman said. “Playing in a CCS championship game means the world. It’s a once in a lifetime thing that high schoolers get.”

Earlier this year, Aptos snapped a five-match losing streak against its longtime league rival that dated back to 2017. Junior Peyton Dueck said both wins against Soquel were equally satisfying.

“We can’t explain how excited we are right now heading into the final,” Dueck said. “I think this one was just extra special because (Soquel) won league and we beat them in CCS.”

Dueck added it was especially great to be able to get the win on their court in front of the home fans.

The Knights won a share of the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League regular season title and won the league tournament against Harbor High.

“I’m just really proud of the girls for showing up and staying engaged throughout the match,” said Aptos coach Lake Merchen. 

Merchen said they had tons of respect for the Knights, especially knowing what they’re capable of doing. He said they had to play like the underdog and it worked.

“I’m a little lost for words tonight,” Merchen said.  

The Mariners needed an extra point to edge the Knights in the first set, 26-24. They kept charging in the second set and put it away, 25-11, with ease.

Senior Sam Strah led the Knights to a win the third set and was looking to push the match to a fifth. 

But Dueck and company had a different plan. The Mariners rebounded in the fourth by taking a six-point lead and never looked back.

“It all came down to who wanted it more,” Dueck said. 

Strah, who was recently named the SCCAL M.V.P., had 20 kills, 21 digs and two aces.

Sophomore Maya Rhee-Pizano had 10 digs, seven kills and an ace, while senior Sam Werdmuller had 24 assists and five aces for the Knights.

Ackerman said the biggest difference in Friday’s game was their ability to communicate well on the court and having the home crowd behind them.

“We had some high energy and the crowd really fed us,” Ackerman said.  

Merchen said he’s happy for the seniors who found redemption for the playoff losses of the last two years.

“It feels good to be the team to come out of all the craziness and be on top,” Merchen said. “It’s been our goal to make it to the (CCS) final and it was a goal to beat Soquel. We’re hitting these goals right now and one more goal is to win the CCS final.”  

Dueck said they’ll go into practice focused and ready to prepare for the championship match.  

“We really went into this game confident and believing in ourselves,” Dueck said. “We’ve been working all season for this.”   

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