RIPON —Hilmar had the look of a team that had been there, done that in tight situations.
That poise helped carry the reigning Trans-Valley League champion and Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV finalist to a competitive three-game win (26-24, 25-19, 25-17) over Ripon, which once again proved it could hang with an elite squad on Monday.
Emily Baptista, Hilmar’s standout 6-foot-2 middle, came through at the biggest moments to keep Ripon at bay. She hammered two straight spikes to clinch the tightly-contested first set for the Yellowjackets. The league’s 2013 MVP later closed out the second with six consecutive service points, the final of which she scored with a well-placed kill from the back row. Baptista ended up with a match-high 23 kills.
It was yet another encouraging but frustrating result for coach Adrienne Beltrami. The Indians (3-3 TVL, 13-7 overall) previously lost to the Yellowjackets (5-0, 29-8) in four games with a chance at forcing a fifth. They’ve also gone the distance with second-place Escalon.
With four SJS playoff berths allotted to the TVL, Ripon is a shoo-in to get in. Beltrami, though, would like for her club to take that big step in the final weeks of the regular season. The Indians get another shot at Escalon next Monday on the road.
“I think the difference is Hilmar and Escalon are used to beating Ripon,” Beltrami said. “They’ve found a comfort zone against us. When we go into a playing them, even though I personally believe we have a ton of talent and are very capable of beating them we have that thought in the back of our head that we haven’t beaten them in a few years.
“I really think that if we beat one of them just once that it will go away. Until that happens this is where we’re going to be. We’re getting there, just not fast enough.”
The difference in talent is minimal.
The Indians showed as much in different portions of the match, and that’s with one of their top players — senior opposite Jacqui Uecker — out with a knee injury.
“We don’t know how bad it is,” Beltrami said of Uecker’s ailment, which could be ligament tears. “That’s definitely a big loss and it hurts us; she’s a seasoned player. I was really, really proud of what the kids did tonight. We still could have won; it’s just a matter of believing how good they are. I know how good they are, but I don’t know if they do 100 percent of the time.”
Hilmar appeared to be to on its way to an easy win in the first game when it held seven-point leads on six different occasions and once led by as much as eight, 20-12. Ripon rallied back with timely kills from sophomore outside hitter Samantha McCreath.
Middle blockers Breanna Barrios and Karissa Carlson also had shining moments late in the first two sets. In Game 1, Barrios stuffed a Baptiste hit attempt and then fired a kill on a quick set from fellow sophomore Lauren Wiebe for successive points, making it 16-20. Carlson later blocked Baptiste to tie it at 24-24.
Carlson, a 5-11 senior, has been Ripon’s emotional spark, while the 6-1 Barrios plays with the poise of a veteran.
“Those two kids did a really good job tonight,” Beltrami said. “Usually when your two middles do that great you win.”
The front-row trio of McCreath, Barrios and Carlson gave Ripon another chance at staying in the match. Trailing for much of the second set, the Indians were able to erase a late five-point deficit and knotted it at 18-all by winning the match’s longest rally. McCreath came up with two big digs, and Shannon Wesley punctuated it with a kill. Carlson’s ace pushed Ripon ahead, but it would be its final lead of the match.
That was Baptisa’s cue to take over from the service line. Ripon didn’t do itself any favors by struggling in serve receive.
The Indians continued play tough in Game 3. They dug themselves out of an seven-point hole and closed to within one, 13-14, on Wiebe’s ace but Ripon once again failed to get over the hump.
“We battle very well,” Beltrami said. “When we’re playing from behind or are neck and neck we’re fine. But when we go up a little and make a few errors we tighten up again. It’s hard to play that way.”