Redwood had the skills and abilities to compete with Ripon Christian in the 45th California Interscholastic Federation State Championships on Saturday.
That still wasn’t enough to keep pace with a battle-tested group that had already danced on this stage at Santiago Canyon College in Orange.
Ripon Christian repeated as state champ, putting the finishing touches on a dominant postseason campaign with a 26-24, 25-19, 25-15 sweep in the Division III final. The Knights (37-5) dropped just one of 28 sets in nine playoff matches overall, coasting to their 19th Sac-Joaquin Section banner before vanquishing four larger schools on the road as the No. 13 seed in the CIF Northern Regionals.
They were led by 2022 MaxPreps All-American outside hitter Jordan Vander Veen, who netted 11 kills, 20 digs, 13 service points and three aces. Leah Van Wyngarden registered 13 kills and 10 digs. Setter Megan Weststeyn amassed 32 assists, 12 digs and two blocks. Libero Allison Brown collected 14 digs, 13 service points and two aces.
Ripon Christian is now 3-0 all-time in state finals, and coach Kayla Kootstra and assistant Melissa Blanco played a part in all three. They were players for the 1999 team that claimed the Division V title. Last year, the Knights did it in Division IV.
They’re the only current state titlist to go back-to-back. Also bringing home championship hardware Friday and Saturday: Mater Dei of Santa Ana (Open Division), Valley Christian of San Jose (Division I), Campbell Hall of North Hollywood (Division II), Glendale (Division IV) and Crystal Springs of Hillsborough (Division V).
“Pretty amazing,” Kootstra said. “Last year, it was just cool because we hadn’t been there in so long. To do it twice in a row I think is a huge testament to this group of girls and their determination. They’ve been able to play consistent, great volleyball for a second year in a row.”
And they swept heavy hitters along the way, including defending Division III state champion Archie Williams in the NorCal finals. Redwood (36-7) is a first-time state finalist but a talented and senior-laden squad headed by decorated coach Alana Montgomery.
Championship experience and chemistry helped separate Ripon Christian from the Visalia-based Rangers, who came out of the SoCal bracket as the No. 2 seed.
The Knights did not allow unforced errors to snowball into debilitating scoring runs, but took advantage anytime Redwood started to bend. They scored the final four points to take the opening set after facing game point at 24-22. In the second set, they broke away from a 13-13 stalemate with a 9-2 run. Ripon Christian made its move even earlier in game 3, as 2022 MaxPreps All-American Jordan Vander Veen went on a nine-point service streak that included three aces and ended with the Knights well ahead, 13-4.
“Obviously, we have talent and I would never take that away from them, but I really think it is the team chemistry and togetherness in this group of girls,” Kootstra said of her team’s knack for overcoming pressure-packed situations. “This year, we focused a lot on attitude and selflessness and being called to serve others. They embraced that so well and it allowed us to come together in a way that made our team dynamic surpass whatever they were capable of doing by themselves.
“You saw that in the first set. We weren’t necessarily playing our best, and people who don’t normally make errors were making errors. Other people were able to step up and we overcame that.”
Redwood was ahead for most of the first set, leading by as much as five, 12-7. The Knights rallied to take a 20-18 lead, but the Rangers recaptured momentum with two straight kills from Audrey Hyde (11 kills, three blocks, two aces) and a third from Ava Ferguson to make it 22-21. Taylor McEleree’s spike later set up game point.
Ripon Christian responded with kills from Sydney Hoffman (five kills) and Vander Veen. A hitting error and double-hit violation from Redwood sealed it for the Knights.
“It was a big table turner,” Kootstra said. “Not that we can’t walk away from a loss and come back and win the whole thing, but I think it just gave us a little bit of breathing room and confidence going into the second set. It took momentum away from them. To have a big comeback at the end of the game was definitely a turning point for what happened in the next two sets.”
Ripon Christian slowly tightened its stranglehold on the match the rest of the way, and Kootsra got to celebrate with her seven seniors — Dayna Koolhaas (four service points, three digs), Maddie Yonker, Brown, Hoffman, Vander Veen, Van Wyngarden and Weststeyn — one last time.
These seniors were freshmen when Kootstra began coaching her alma mater during the COVID season.
“It’s going to be weird next year without at least one of them on the team,” Kootstra said. “When you take over a program, you have a vision or an idea of what you want, and I think this class is the epitome of what you want to accomplish.
“Some of them play for big clubs, so they were going to get better regardless of who their high school coach is. Not only do I see the growth in their play, but mentally and spiritually, as well. The depth of character I’ve seen develop in these girls is so special, and I think that’s what I’m going to miss even more so than their play on the court. It’s so exciting to win and to be at the end of the season, but also sad that this group will be gone.”