Kill Machine sends Feather River to first state women's volleyball title

Mere Nagase, tourney MVP, helped Feather River win the state title on Sunday, photo by Richard Quinton.
Mere Nagase, tourney MVP, helped Feather River win the state title on Sunday, photo by Richard Quinton.

(CHULA VISTA)--The 2019 CCCAA Women's Volleyball State Championship tournament featured a number of individual great power hitters, but no one group stood out more than the Feather River Five as tourney MVP setter Mere Nagase, opposite Natalie Thomas, middle blocker Sydney Gott and outside hitters Lelaau Tuia and Aurora Carnes continually pounded the ball until all five reached double figures in kills Sunday afternoon in the championship match.

The 65 kills combined from them propelled Feather River College (35-2) to its first-ever state championship in any sport and the North Region's fifth in the last seven years as the Golden Eagles ruined Irvine Valley's undefeated season, 23-25, 25-20, 25-20, 26-28, 15-11. The Lasers (27-1) saw a 27-match win streak end despite 15 kills by Gabriela Griego, 14 plus 23 digs and four aces by Lea Kruse, 12 kills by Kristin Austin, eight kills and 20 digs by Alaina Gendale, and 18 digs from Anna Unke. Each of the team's last two losses have occured at the 2018 and 2019 state tournaments. 

Irvine Valley was 75-4 in sets coming into the tourney against all opponents from Southern California, then stumbled at 8-7 in going five sets against all three of their North Region state tourney opponents in North #4 American River (won in five in the quarterfinals), #2 Fresno City (rallied to win in five in semifinals), and #1 Feather River. Ironically, IVC eliminated the 2018 state champ in ARC and the 2016 champion in Fresno. But then it was Feather River taking out the 2017 champ--Irvine Valley.

Nagase, an All-American First Team selection in the regular season, accomplished a triple-double with 10 kills, 39 assists and 27 digs (plus three blocks). Her quick sets and spectacular all-around play was complemented by the big hitting of Tuia and Carnes, who each drove home 16 kills. Thomas was the only FRC player to reach double figures in all three state tourney matches as she slammed 13 kills (and four blocks) while hitting .345.

Irvine Valley tried but had no answer to the block party led by Gott, who had 10 kills and delivered eight blocks. The team totaled 14 block kills to just four by Irvine Valley. Colette Florentin added five blocks while libero Kayla Joyce was her usual steady defensive self on 30 digs. Setter Lauren Ornbaurn added 15 assists and 10 digs.

"Everyone thinks I'm making all these smart decisions when setting, but the reality is that we are loaded with so many big hitters and I just put the ball up there and let them swing," Nagase said. She then talked about the team's only down point of the season when after a 19-match win streak to start the season, FRC lost two matches in a row to Folsom Lake and Cabrillo on the same day. Feather River finished the season on a second major win streak of 16 straight.

"We needed that to happen. It was like this golden egg and we were on a big high, and didn't want to lose the streak. Then after we lost, we really went on a streak of winning sets (38 in a row). Better we lost then and got that out of the way, then it happen here. That's what happened to Irvine Valley. We never wanted that feeling of losing to happen to us again."

Irvine Valley's Austin said, "We went all year, winning matches in three, and then we have all these 5-set matches here. It was crazy. Feather River was a lot of fun to play against, and they were just a little better than us at the end. I think we were seeing different things with the North teams that we hadn't faced v. the South ones."

Feather River head coach Sarah Ritchie, who has a dynasty in the Golden Valley Conference with 10 consecutive conference titles, reflected on changes she made for herself as a coach.

"It's been a journey," she said. "First, I recruited my ass off to bring in not just players who were talented but were good people. I got some advice from a few coaches I know that maybe I should stop yelling so much and chill out in my approach with players. This group was just a joy to work with at practice every day. I loved how hard they worked to get here and how much fun we had doing it. And I can't thank enough the great team support we received from the City of Quincy, the entire community. So many people came down here to root for us at the state tourney. All of my former assistant coaches flew in from Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii and that meant so much to me."

After Irvine Valley won the opening set, the Lasers were tied at 9-9 in the second set before Feather River went on a 9-1 run en route to a 5-point win to tie the match at 1-1. In the third, it was 11-11 when Feather River again went on a sharp 7-1 run. A Nagase 2-hand placement kill ended another 5-point set win, and a 2-1 sets lead. In the fourth, Irvine Valley fought off match point on a kill by Gendale at 24-23. After Tuai bombed a point for a 26-25 FRC lead, IVC again faced match point, but Austin went on a spree of spikes for three consecutive hammer kills that kept the match going with a 2-point IVC set win. 

In the fifth, the Lasers led 7-5, but FRC responded with a 5-0 run capped by Gott's kill. Thomas took a set from Nagase and floored the state title clinching point at 15-11 to set off a Golden Eagles celebration.

Tuia said one of the differences was the schedule for Feather River.

"On the broadcasts, they talked about being battle-tested," she said. "We were battle-tested all season, playing against the best North teams. We were prepared to compete here. I don't think Irvine Valley was battle-tested until they reached state."

The 2019 state tourney featured the last five consecutive matches all going the 5-set distance. Feather River went a perfect 5-0 in 5-set matches this season, including a win over UC Santa Cruz. 

It was the second straight year that a college that never won a title captured the first-place trophy. American River's '18 crown was its first in program history. The first 36 state championships were won by all South Region colleges until Cabrillo broke that amazing streak in 2013. 

2019 WOMEN'S VOLLEYBALL
ALL-STATE TOURNAMENT TEAM

MVP-Mere Nagase, Feather River, So. Setter
Natalie Thomas, Feather River, So. Opposite
Lelaau Tuia, Feather River, Fr. OH
Sydney Gott, Feather River, Fr. MB
Gabriela Griego, Irvine Valley, So. OH
Anna Unke, Irvine Valley, So. Libero
Shaney Lipscomb, Grossmont, So. OH
Marina Gonzalez, Fresno City, So. OH
Ellie Cary, Cabrillo, So. OH
Andreia Keane, American River, So. OH
Mikayla Clark, El Camino, So. OH
Paola Peralta, MiraCosta, Fr. Libero

All releases on State Women's Volleyball written by Robert Lewis, CCCWVCA SID