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Densberger leads St. Helenas stunner of top-seeded Ripon in NorCal opener
The celebration begins behind Ripon High’s Paige Horwood (8) and Coryn Hernandez after visiting St. Helena recorded the clinching point in a five-game thriller on Tuesday. St. Helena moves on as the eighth-seeded team in the CIF State Northern California Championships following its upset of No. 1 Ripon. - photo by JONAMAR JACINTO
RIPON — It’s an overused cliché, but the Ripon-St. Helena first-round match in the CIF State Northern California Division IV Championships Tuesday was truly played out like a heavyweight title bout.

Top-seeded Ripon bounced up off the canvas after falling behind two games to none, using its powerful left cross-straight right combination of Coryn Hernandez and Cheyann DePrue to get back into the fight.

But in the end, it was No. 8 St. Helena, with its thudding haymaker in the form of Maddy Densberger, that celebrated a riveting five-game victory (25-23, 25-21, 16-25, 20-25, 15-10).

The 5-foot-11 Densberger, bound for Sonoma State, rapped out five of her match-high 34 kills in the deciding fifth game, and it was her tip over Hernandez and Kelsey Johnston that sealed it.

Densberger’s kill total was just one shy of Hernandez and DePrue’s combined 35.

St. Helena will face No. 5 Notre Dame Belmont — a 25-8, 25-18, 25-8 winner over West Valley of Cottonwood — in the NorCal semifinal Saturday.

 “We knew that based on the first two games that we could take it,” Densberger said. “We just played down to a level that we weren’t supposed to play in the third and fourth games. We just calmed down and played our game.”

“I trust my teammates, but I do have the confidence in myself to make the plays for the team when we need it.”

The Saints (29-4) were quick to quiet the home crowd in Game 5, taking an 8-2 lead after two straight kills from Densberger.

Later, DePrue slapped down two kills of her own in succession to close the Indians (34-7) in, 5-9. Sophomore Alyssa Leslie’s spike pulled them to within 4 (7-11), but they could get no closer. Densberger set up the winning play with the last of her kills.

Ripon’s defense and passing, its bread and butter all year, failed to deliver consistently enough to keep up in crunch time, and two serving errors — essentially two gift-wrapped points for St. Helena — didn’t help.

“It came down to mental errors,” said Johnston, Ripon’s standout four-year varsity setter heading to Cal State Monterey Bay.

And they came at an inopportune time.

Once Ripon found its groove during the one-sided third game, there appeared to be no stopping it.

“When the momentum swung in our favor I thought we were going to pull it out,” Ripon coach Larry Keethe said. “The girls left it on the court; they sure didn’t give up.

“It was just good play from the other team and some unlucky breaks on our part. It wasn’t meant to be, I guess.”

Keethe insists that despite the seedings, Tuesday’s loss was hardly an upset. St. Helena proved that it was an unfavorable first-round pairing.  

On the other side of the bracket, No. 2 Sacred Heart Prep throttled No. 7 Sutter (25-14, 25-16, 25-9) of the Northern Section, which had seven of its eight teams from Divisions II-V swept on Tuesday.

“There are six really good teams in our bracket, and (St. Helena) is one of them,” Keethe said.

DePrue finished with 20 kills, 17 digs and three blocks for Ripon. While she was the Indians’ top offensive performer throughout, she was at times neutralized by the Saints’ taller blockers and scrappy back-row defenders.

In the fourth game, it was Hernandez (15 kills, 3 blocks) who provided Ripon a major spark.

“We had a really good connection going,” said Johnston, who finished with 47 assists. “(Hernandez) was just on fire; everything I was giving her she put away.

“We just wanted it that bad,” Johnston added. “After we got in a couple of kills it was like, ‘All right, we got this.’ We just got on a roll.

“We got really pumped up, the crowd got really pumped up and the energy in the building was really high.”

Afterwards, the Indians were left stunned.

It was an all-too-familiar feeling for the five-time defending Trans Valley League champions who clinched their first Sac-Joaquin Section title in 27 years last week at UC Davis.
Ripon’s 2008 and 2009 seasons also ended with five-game losses, in those cases to SJS arch-rival Christian Brothers in the NorCal finals.

Johnston said Tuesday’s defeat hurts more than any other for her and fellow seniors Paulina Ceja (19 digs), DePrue and Hernandez.

“A loss is a loss, but this is my final year,” Johnston said. “We’re all a family. We’re just going to miss each other so much.”