Benefield: Cardinal Newman volleyball finds another gear against league rivals

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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.”

I’m guessing that setter and outside hitter Kimi Waller hasn’t had a feeling like that in high school volleyball, either. Because she’s a freshman.

Waller was deadly Tuesday. She had seven kills, 15 assists and four aces.

“Kimi is a really special talent,” Nielson said. “Her ability to make good plays out of bad situations and her volleyball IQ is off the charts. We are really fortunate to have her.”

Waller said the Cardinals played like they had a different mindset than usual Tuesday. Remember, this is a team that was 3-3 in league. They didn’t play like it.

“I felt this fire in our team that we found and I’m so excited for the rest of the league,” she said. “If we can keep doing that, we are going to beat these teams. I’m just so excited.

“That is just a great win for us,” she said. “They are a great team. We respect them a lot.”

Nielson credited some of the fire Cardinal Newman came with to their most recent losses. Yup, losses.

The Cardinals went 2-3 over the weekend at the Notre Dame Belmont Tiger Cup. And Nielson will take it.

The level of play was so high and the speed of the game so intense that his team had to raise its level significantly to walk away with two wins in five contests. He saw that level again on Tuesday.

“We are talking about keeping that momentum going and keeping that intensity and focus,” he said.

Newman hosts Maria Carrillo on Thursday.

So while Cardinal Newman is trying to bottle the formula that allowed it to dominate Tuesday, Santa Rosa is tasked with shaking off a painful one.

And Beal knows he doesn’t have a lot of time to do that shaking off with his team. The Panthers face rivals Montgomery High at Montgomery on Thursday. The Vikings are in second place in the NBL-Oak after Tuesday’s win against Windsor.

“I told them we all deal with loss and changes and things differently,” he said. “Tonight we can feel disappointed about this, but tomorrow we come focused.

“It’s one loss,” he said. “I consider this a hiccup in the season. That’s all it is.”

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

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