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Benefield: Petaluma volleyball squad up for playoff challenge

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Coach Ryan Hughes describes the Petaluma High volleyball squad as “an emotionally roller coaster kind of team.”

High highs, low lows. And emotions — keeping them in check, using them to an advantage — will likely play a crucial role in how the Trojans, the No. 5 seed in the North Coast Section Division 3 tournament, fare against the top-seeded Branson Bulls on Wednesday night in Ross.

Branson is the top-ranked squad among Division 5 schools in California, according to MaxPreps. Bumped up to Division 3 for competitive-equity purposes, the Bulls rank No. 8 in that division statewide. They took second in the Marin County Athletic League, behind only Marin Catholic, the top-ranked Division 4 team in California.

In their opening-round playoff game, the Bulls beat No. 16 De Anza 25-4, 25-5, 25-3. Victories rarely come more complete than that. Then they beat Drake, their MCAL league-mates, 25-18, 25-11, 25-9.

Looking at the Bulls’ resume, Hughes just had to laugh.

“They are not bad,” he said.

None of this is lost on the rest of the Trojans, either.

“My kids definitely look up this stuff, it’s so funny,” Hughes said. “They look it up more than I do. They know their names, they know their numbers, who they are. There is so much video and social media these days.”

Junior outside hitter Anna Hospodar and others certainly did some fact-finding on the Bulls.

“We were looking at how they are doing,” she said. “You have MaxPreps saying they are 86th (in the state) and we are, what, 156?”

Not to split hairs, but the Bulls are actually ranked 77th overall in the state and the Trojans are 157th.

But despite her detective work on their next opponent, Hospodar is not eager to let the numbers tell the whole story.

“I don’t want it to get into our heads about that, that they are so much better than us,” she said. “We are a good team.”

Indeed. And if we are doing a background check on the Bulls, let’s take a quick look at the Trojans.

Petaluma is 19-5 overall and went 8-4 in the Vine Valley Athletic League to take third behind Vintage and Sonoma Valley, who tied for first.

In their tournament opener, they beat No. 12 seed Analy 25-14, 25-18, 25-20. That win set up yet another showdown — Round Three — with Sonoma Valley.

The Dragons came in with true bona fides. At 10-2, they were co-Vine Valley Athletic League champs, they were 15-5 overall and this: They were 6-0 against the Trojans in league this season. They had swept their league rivals in every set of their two matches.

But that’s where the roller coaster analogy comes in, because the Trojans insist they weren’t afraid to face them that third time. No, they hadn’t played well in their first league meeting (25-21, 25-22, 25-20) but they had played markedly better the second time the two teams faced off. But still, they lost 27-25, 25-18, 27-25.

The first meeting was kind of the proverbial punch in the gut. The Trojans came into that match on a high. They were 13-2 when they faced the Dragons the first time.

“We had this preconceived thing in our head that they are a good team but we were winning a ton,” Hospodar said. “Once we started losing, it got into our heads.”

Roller coaster.

“It was kind of an awakening,” she said. “It was actually immediate. We just kind of took what we had done wrong and we were very open about it. Our coach helped us a ton and told us what we didn’t do well.”

They had exactly 23 days to make changes. They went into their second match brimming with confidence.

“We still lost in three sets, but the scores were very, very different,” senior Abbie Delaney said. “It was one of the best games our team has ever played in. We couldn’t figure out how to finish the sets, they were just like one step ahead of us, I guess. It was a very good game, it was very fun.”

But they lost. That was the last game of the regular season. They went into the postseason on a losing note. Roller coaster.

When the NCS brackets were released, the Trojans drew a first-round match with the Analy Tigers. The Dragons dispatched the Tigers 25-14, 25-23, 25-15. But that win set them up for Round Three against, yep, the Sonoma Valley Dragons.

Roller coaster.

The third meeting was just a week after their last game against the Dragons — not a lot of time to solve the puzzle.

“We adapted well. We had a great game,” Hughes said. “We passed better, we made better setting decisions. We played well.”

And that has pumped a lot of confidence into a team that already has all the tools, Hughes said.

“Things are starting to click,” he said.

“Sonoma has always been a team that has been very hard to beat,” Delaney said. “It’s always been very competitive game during volleyball season, so being able to beat them during playoffs? There were people crying.”

But that win puts them right in the crosshairs of the mighty Bulls. The Trojans insist they don’t want to sweat it. They say if they play the way they are capable, they can pull off an upset.

A key, they all agree, is not letting the highs get too high or the lows too low — stick with the game plan. No roller coasters.

Hospodar, for one, said she’s ready to get off the roller coaster and just enjoy the ride.

“Now I feel like we are in a place where we are happy in how we play,” she said. “It’s nice to feel that.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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