Despite an 0-3 record against its opponent and being down two mascots, Sacred Heart Prep somehow made the magic happen on Tuesday.
It won its CIF state NorCal Regional Division II Volleyball semifinal over host and nemesis Notre Dame-Belmont, 20-25, 25-20, 25-23, 25-19, to grab a spot in the NorCal finals title game on Saturday at 6 p.m. at Carlmont.
"We had lost to them three straight times, and we just made up our minds that it wasn't going to happen again," said Sacred Heart senior Cate Desler, who led both teams with 33 kills. "We just kept the feeling that, 'Yes! All this hard work will pay off."
First of all, it was Sacred Heart's defense that led the way. Despite Desler's kill output (junior teammate Ali Pulverari was next with 12), it was her team's work at the net that was another big factor.
Notre Dame won the first match 25-20, but then SHP (28-8) completely flipped the script -- taking the next three 25-20, 25-23 and 25-18.
This despite Notre Dame having two mascots, both Tigers, who kept the home crowd in top form. Sacred Heart, meanwhile, had none; its legendary Gator mascot didn't show up.
But they had Desler and Pulverari, and that was enough. Desler is part of the Gators' Mount Rushmore: four seniors (with Haley Martella, Caroline Caruso and Celia Charlton) who, according to head coach Ali Magner, have provided the leadership to make this win possible.
"Cate has been a flawless leader," Magner said. "We are peaking at the right time, and she's a big part of that.
"I'm proud of all the players," Magner said. "These girls believe in each other and play for each other, and that showed tonight."
After two losses to the Tigers in the regular season and one in the WBAL playoffs, it looked like SHP was in for another whuppin' in this one -- Notre Dame shot to a 3-0 lead in the first period, and won that match.
But Sacred Heart went on a 5-1 run early in the second period and never trailed. Desler had five kills, three blocks and one ace in the second.
And her domination carried through the other two sets, as nearly every time Notre Dame looked to pull away, Desler would come through with an athletic move to save the day.
"I honestly think that us winning long rallies was a difference," said Desler, who is hoping to play at Division III Tufts University (Boston) next season. "When you win those, you don't feel tired."
Sacred Heart fell behind 3-1 and 10-3 in the third set, but came back to tie it at 20-all on Elena Radeff's block, and pull away from there.
The Gators won it in the fourth set when, fittingly, a spike by Pulverari ricocheted off of a Notre Dame player's hands and sailed into the Sacred Heart rooting section.
Sadly, their mascot was not there to retrieve it. But for the Gators, everything else was just about perfect.