First All-North final is Savanah Smith Show; American River wins 1st state women's volleyball title

Savanah Smith drives a kill through a Fresno block in helping American River win the 2018 state women's volleyball title Sunday, photo by David Sanborn for CCCAA.
Savanah Smith drives a kill through a Fresno block in helping American River win the 2018 state women's volleyball title Sunday, photo by David Sanborn for CCCAA.

All-State Tournament Team: http://www.cccaasports.org/sports/wvball/Awards

(Fairfield, Calif.) -- From a hitting standpoint, opposite/setter Savanah Smith hadn't been a big factor in American River College's first two victories of the CCCAA Women's Volleyball State Championship. But the sophomore transfer and All-Region selection put on an exhibition of power and versatility, willing the Beavers to their first-ever state championship on Sunday. American River rallied to defeat Fresno City in a dramatic five sets, 25-18, 23-25, 17-25, 26-24, 15-8, in what was also the first state final meeting of two North teams in the 42-year history of the tournament.

The match was played before a large, enthusiastic crowd at Solano College.

Smith, who had just 13 kills in the team's quarterfinals/semifinals wins over Bakersfield and Gavilan, powered a 2018-state tourney high of 21 kills, hitting .556 with just one error in 36 attempts. A bounceback from Washington State University, Smith accomplished a triple-double in kills, assists (18), and digs (10). Her overall play in the three matches earned the 5-foot-11, left-hander the MVP of the tourney.

Fresno had its 27-match win streak end in losing for the second time this season to ARC, both in five sets. FCC (29-4) is the state runner-up after winning the state title in 2016. It was the fourth North state championship since 2013 and was decided between two teams that were not among the top four seeds in the North Regional playoffs. ARC was No. 5 and Fresno earned the No. 6 seed.

American River (25-7) won the opening set, then fell behind 2-1. In the fourth set, Fresno led 22-20 and was within two points of the crown at 23-22. However, ARC roared back on back-to-back kills by Lily Johnson. Tied at 24-24, an attack error by Fresno was followed by a booming kill down the line by Smith for set point as the final went to a fifth set. None of the previous six quarterfinals and semifinals matches had gone past four games.

In the fifth, ARC went ahead 4-1, and never lost the lead. Smith ripped a kill to make it 6-4 and the Beavers distanced themselves on a kill by reserve Ava Siemering, a player who did not see her first set of the tournament until set 3 of the final, that made it 9-5. Smith set middle blocker Kendall Welpott for a kill that made it 13-8 and then back-to-back attack errors by Fresno gift-wrapped match point. 

American River was an impressive 6-1 in 5-set matches, something not lost on ARC head coach Carson Lowden. 

"We take a lot of pride in how well we've played in fifth sets this year," she said. "Our mindset in that fourth set was just to believe in ourselves and score as often as possible. Some how and some way, just get it to the fifth. I know that Savanah may not have been hitting as well in the first part of the tourney, but she really did so many other things well on the floor, between her setting, blocking and defense. Today, we knew we could rely on her. We did a good job of getting her the ball and she was accurate with big swings down the lines.

"So many players came through for us between Welpott's blocking, Andreia Keane and her hitting, and the defense with Maddie. It was great to see Siemering come in and spark us. She made some big kills when we had only put her in for blocking purposes."

Adams made 23 digs (plus seven assists and two aces) and Welpott had five kills and five blocks. The two were named to the All-Tournament team.

Keane hit 13 kills and made 11 digs and Lily Johnson had 11 kills and 11 digs. Botagoz Joslin set 31 assists and recorded 15 digs. Siemering scored two kills and a block. 

For Fresno, All-American and 6-1 sophomore middle blocker Keri Leake, like Smith a 4-year university bounceback as she played as a freshman at Boise State, had her best match of the tourney with 16 kills (hit .394) and seven blocks. Marina Gonzalez powered 16 kills, Julie Castleman had seven kills and six blocks, Abbey Briggs made six kills and eight blocks. Setter Katie Emmerling totaled 46 assists, 13 digs, four blocks and two aces while Destiny Vang, the shortest player at the tourney at a listed 5 feet, had nine digs and served four aces. Emmerling, Gonzalez and Vang all were picked to the All-Tournament team.

"American River played great and defended well," said Fresno coach Kieran Roblee said. "You know what's worse to lose in 5 in a quarterfinal or to lose here in a state final? I'll take this every time. I'm proud of our players efforts and all the work they put in to reach this point."

The 5-8 freshman Welpott, a bundle of energy on the floor, also was a bundle of energy in talking about her emotions following the win. "We won state, but it just hasn't soaked in yet. I want to keep playing! I'm just so blessed to play with teammates who all put their hearts into us winning. I love playing for Coach Lowden. She is so positive and when we make a mistake she just tells us to shake it off and go to the next play."

American River closed the year with a modest seven-match win streak, including five straight in its postseason run to glory. ARC is the third different North team to win a large schools state women's volleyball championship, joining Fresno (2016) and Cabrillo (2013 and 2015).

Other All-Tournament selections were Kaylin Henderson (West Valley), Phina Leilua (El Camino), Sarah Armendariz (Bakersfield), Jane Woodward (Cypress), Renata Bath (Irvine Valley), and Mikeila Banda (Gavilan). Vang is the first non-libero, defensive specialist to be named to the All-State Tournament team since at least the introduction of the libero position in the early 2000s.

Ironically, ARC's Smith and Fresno's Leake, the two most impactful hitters in the final, are going to be 4-year university teammates. Both were early signees to Fresno State University.

American River certainly earned its state championship in defeating Top 10-ranked state teams in Big 8 Conference champion Sierra (Round 2, Regionals), South Coast Conference South Division champion El Camino in the quarterfinals, and Orange Empire Conference champ Irvine Valley, winner of the 2017 state title in the semifinals. With the Beavers win over Fresno, Central Valley Conference winner, it meant they had beaten four consecutive conference champions to cap their crown.

Gonzalez and Keane were the tournament leaders in kills with 43 each. Emmerling led all setters with 122 assists. Welpott's 18 blocks led that category. Adams led in digs with 75. 

American River is just the 12th college to win the state women's volleyball championship (not including small schools division from 1977-1983). The variety of different teams have occurred since 2010 as five programs that previously didn't win accomplished winning the state tourney in the past nine years, including Pierce (2010-2012). With the addition of ARC, only Fresno, Santa Ana (1977) and Cerritos (1992) are schools that have won it once. There have been no repeat champions since Pierce and the current 6-year streak of different teams winning (Cabrillo and Irvine Valley won twice, but not consecutively) is a first in tournament history.

The ultimate irony of the 2018 season and the firsts by North colleges is that one-time South power Golden West, a program that won a state-high 16 state titles missed the postseason. That was a first for the Huntington Beach college. GWC last won in 2004 when then head coach Albert Gasparian retired from directing the volleyball team in winning his 12th straight crown.

Release by Robert Lewis, CCCAA/CCCWVCA