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Trojans pull upset; top St. Francis in five games to win section volleyball title

By: Matt Long, Sports Editor
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Seventh-seeded teams with 12 losses don’t normally win section championships, but the stars aligned for the Oak Ridge Trojans girls’ volleyball team.

Oak Ridge was probably the most confident seventh seed ever to play for the Sac-Joaquin Section championship. Sure, the Trojans had lost twice to top-seeded St. Francis earlier in the season, but they probably played them tougher than any opponent they had seen; taking them to five games back in August and then losing in three during a tournament in late September.

Even after losing the fourth game Saturday night at Natomas High, forcing a deciding fifth set, Oak Ridge didn’t flinch.

“When we got to the fifth I game, I was like ‘we got this,’” Oak Ridge senior middle blocker and co-captain Natalia Andrus said. “We play five games all the time.”

Fellow senior and co-captain Gracie Rowland added, “I’m pretty comfortable in a fifth game.”

If the Trojans were nervous trailing St. Francis 14-12 in the deciding fifth set, it didn’t show. All the Troubadours needed was a point to claim the section title most thought they would win, but a young Oak Ridge team rallied to score four straight points to win the game, the match and the Division I title.

Rowland scored with a shot from the back row before St. Francis failed to get the ball over the net on a third hit, tying the game at 14. Sophomore outside hitter Kylie Kirtlan, who played with nerves of steel all night, split a St. Francis block for a kill that brought the Trojans within a point of a championship. That point came next when a St. Francis ball cleared the net but went out of bounds, sending the Trojans into celebration mode. Oak Ridge pulled off the upset 21-25, 27-25, 25-17, 22-25, 16-14.

“This is really nice,” Rowland said. “The last three years, everyone would say this is the team to win a section championship and we would always lose in the semis.”

Junior setter Regan Hoppe added, “She (Gracie) really wanted it.”

Said Andrus, “It’s so perfect because it’s our senior year. We were focused on it. We wanted this bad.”

Rowland led the offense from the outside with a big contribution Kirtlan. Andrus and junior Kealani Kuykendall scored a majority of the points from the middle, while sophomore Nora Abou-Taleb and junior Claire Kuykendall contributed from the right side. Hoppe and Claire Kuykendall handled the setting, while junior libero Jordan Sawyer was the leader in the back row.

“Every girl on this team contributed to this,” Oak Ridge coach Trevin Morgan said. “They all bought in and helped toward this goal.”

The experience of the first two matches against St. Francis, not to mention a competitive Sierra Foothill League schedule which saw the team play five sets in six of 10 matches, prepared the battle-tested Trojans for tonight.

“We knew we matched up well with them,” Morgan said. “We just had to get past the hurdle. Our experience of playing in five-set matches helped us. They (St. Francis) haven’t played too many of those and all the pressure was on them in that fifth set. We are used to it and were calm in the moment. The girls worked hard, and I was just along for the ride.”

The Trojans and the Troubadours will advance to the Nor-Cal playoffs beginning Tuesday.