Benefield: Cardinal Newman volleyball finds another gear against league rivals
Well, who saw that coming?
The Cardinal Newman Cardinals walked into the Santa Rosa High gym Tuesday night with a 3-3 record in North Bay League-Oak Division volleyball to take on the mighty Panthers, a team that had gone undefeated in NBL games since October of 2016.
Instead of being intimidated by the talented Panthers, the Cardinals played like a team jazzed to be there, like a team enjoying the moment.
And enjoy it they did, toppling the Panthers in three sets: 25-16, 25-19, and 26-24.
What were the Cardinals able to figure out against the Panthers that no one else had?
“The biggest thing we talked about was being disciplined on our side of the ball,” Cardinal Newman coach Jeff Nielson said. “We felt like, when we played them the first time, that is something that we could have done better.
“I felt like we really played well in all facets of the game. The girls really stepped it up,” he said. “And Santa Rosa is a great team.”
But let’s step back a little bit. As much as this result seems like an upset, remember that Cardinal Newman gave the Panthers their biggest test of the league season when they took them to five sets on Sept. 20. On that night, the Panthers came out roaring, winning the first set 25-16 only to drop the next two 25-21 and 25-15. Santa Rosa won the third 25-22 and took the fifth and deciding set 15-11.
So Santa Rosa was certainly girding itself for a fight Tuesday. No one can accuse the Panthers of overlooking Newman.
They are a great team that seemingly felt the weight of expectations Tuesday night.
“In one of the timeouts towards the end … I brought them all together and I said, ‘Who’s feeling pressure right now?’” Santa Rosa coach Rob Beal said. “All the girls on the court raised their hand.”
Beal told them to relax, play Panther volleyball.
“Once they loosened up, they actually started playing a lot better,” he said.
But the hole they were in was too deep.
“We knew coming in tonight we were going to have a battle,” Beal said. “They proved that to us and they took care of business like they needed to on their side of the net.
“Cardinal Newman played a really solid match. They really tried tipping the ball, changing up their defense and their defense was there, ready to make a lot of plays on us,” he said.
That Cardinal defense was anchored by senior libero Caroline Martin.
“Caroline, our libero, played so strong,” Nielson said. “Her ability to really read the floor and make good decisions and just control what happens back there is invaluable to us. We would not be the same team without her.”
Martin had 18 digs on the night and they were defensive plays that raised the emotional excitement for the visitors, something that showed increasingly as the night wore on.
“As she makes digs on hard swings, it gets everybody fired up,” Nielson said.
“I think that was the loudest game we have ever played,” Martin said. “I have never felt a feeling like that before during volleyball in my four years at Newman.”