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Ripon Christian rallies to 2nd NorCal championship
Knights coach Kayla Kootstra is now a two-time state finalist
Head-Royce-Ripon Christian girls volleyball
With the home crowd behind them, Ripon Christian’s Ava Van Groningen, from left, Megan Weststeyn, Leah Van Wyngarden, Jordan Vander Veen, Avery McMurray and Taylor Postma celebrated the final point of their four-set win over Head-Royce on Tuesday. - photo by SEAN KAHLER

Kayla Kootstra is going back to the California Interscholastic Federation State Championships, 23 years after leading Ripon Christian to the Division V title as a player.

On Tuesday, the ninth-seeded Knights captured their second NorCal title but in Division IV, using a blistering burst to fend off No. 11 Head-Royce of Oakland, 25-15, 25-19, 15-25, 25-21.

They’ll reunite with a familiar foe on Saturday, as SoCal No. 1 seed Central Valley Christian (26-14) meets them at Santiago Canyon College in Orange. They opened the season against each other back on Aug. 19, and host Ripon Christian won it in three games. The title match is set to start at 11 a.m.

Head-Royce-Ripon Christian girls volleyball
Ripon Christian coach Kayla Kootstra raises the California Interscholastic Federation Northern Regional championship plaque after her Knights defeated Head-Royce in the Division IV final Tuesday. GARY JENSEN/
“It feels full circle,” Kootstra said. “Volleyball and Ripon Christian were always very formative for me, so to be able to come back and be a part of it on the coaching end is exciting and fun.”

Kootstra starred on the 1999 squad that took down Saint Margaret’s of San Juan Capistrano in a four-set finale.

The 2022 team, of course, had to make things interesting in its latest heart stopper. After coasting through the first two games, Ripon Christian appeared to be headed toward a fifth.

The Knights (34-6) trailed by as much as nine, 16-7, in the fourth set, and that was Jordan Vander Veen’s cue to take over. The 5-foot-9 junior outside hitter clobbered 10 of her 23 kills in the game 4, and it was she who fittingly put away the final point with a spike. Ripon Christian’s boisterous fans in the student section rushed the court to celebrate with the team.

Megan Weststeyn served eight straight points to give RC match point at 24-19, landing two aces in the process. Vander Veen delivered four kills during that run.

“Nobody wanted it to go to five, so it just fired us up to play even harder,” Vander Veen said. “We fought for every ball and we really played well together as a team, so I think that helped us get the win.”

She also finished with a team-high six aces to go with seven digs.

“She has an unquenchable competitiveness that is not going to lose,” Kootstra said of Vander Veen. “If that means that she has to get a dig, she’s going to get a dig. If that means needs an ace, she’s going to go for the ace. She has a really good volleyball IQ and the physicality to go with it, and she has definitely been a huge part of our success in this postseason.”

Six-foot setter Weststeyn was key with her all-around play, netting four kills, 36 assists, 10 digs, three blocks and two aces. Sydney Hoffman added seven kills to the attack. Avery McMurray registered four kills, 13 digs and four aces. Ava Van Groningen contributed four kills, 10 digs and three aces.

“They have grit and determination,” Kootstra said. “They really believe. We have moments where we are up and down in terms of execution, but we believed we could win tonight. I think that’s what you saw in the second half of that fourth set, is that never-give-up attitude.”

As has been the case for much of its postseason run, Ripon Christian struggled to get untracked in each set on Tuesday. The Knights started with deficits of 0-5, 0-4, 1-8 and 1-6, but Head-Royce (33-8) could not always capitalize.

“We were ahead in every game,” Jayhawks coach Tate Walthall said. “We have been very good in spurts all season long. We have to have the ability to maintain a super-high level of play against a team that is as big and experienced as Ripon Christian.”

Head-Royce capped off the third set as strong as it finished, scoring on a kill from Hailey Hilsabeck, a back-row kill from Lauren Baxter and an ace from freshman libero Natalie Kwon. Although the Jayhawks do have some heavy hitters, such as senior middle Alison Tsai, opposite Melina McKinney and Hailey Hilsabeck, it was their off-speed spikes and dinks that threw off Ripon Christian for much of the match.

“They made great adjustments in the third set and it took us out of our game, so to be able to bounce back and still come out (with the win) in four is a big deal,” Kootstra said. “We just made adjustments in our defense to try and pick up those tips, but most importantly it was about making sure we were executing and controlling the pace of play on our side.

“As I’ve said all year, we’re not good at opponent volleyball. We’re not good at Head-Royce volleyball, but we’re good at Ripon Christian volleyball. When we finally settled in and just played our game and did what we know how to do, that’s when you saw the shift take place.”

That shift came in the form of a 15-4 flurry in the end, and the Knights are a win away from joining Kootstra’s 99ers in glory.

“We’ve dreamed about this all season, and now that we’re here it’s a surreal experience,” Vander Veen said. “We’re all just so excited to be here. Coach has already put a banner up on this wall, so we’re excited to do this for her and for each other.”