By Ray Hamill — Getting off to a fast start could be key for the St. Bernard’s girls on Saturday night, as they look to end a 37-year championship drought for H-DNL volleyball.
The Crusaders will host California Crosspoint in the North Coast Section Division-6 final at 7 p.m. and a victory will see them claim the league’s first section crown since McKinleyville won a Class A championship in 1986.
And head coach Wendy Joyner is hoping a big home crowd will have her players pumped up for the occasion as they look to secure the school’s first-ever NCS pennant in the sport.
The SB girls, who are the top seeds in the bracket, won their semifinal against San Domenico on Wednesday and have yet to drop a set in two playoff games after receiving an opening round bye.
And the hometown fans have played their role on this playoff run.
“We’ve had big crowds the past two games,” the head coach added. “So that was awesome.”
The game will cap a huge weekend for the school’s sports teams, with the Crusaders girls soccer team — which features many of the same players as the volleyball team — playing a pivotal NCS semifinal on Friday afternoon and the SB football team potentially playing for a share of a first-ever Big 4 championship against crosstown rival Eureka on Saturday afternoon.
Either way, the volleyball final should be a special occasion for a roster that has impressed the coach not just on the court but also in how they approach the game.
The Crusaders, who went undefeated on the way to a Little 4 title, are led by reigning league MVP Madelyn Shanahan, who has taken her game to even loftier heights this year.
And that, coupled with the emergence of Rihanna Fonentot as a star contributor this season, has the Crusaders on the verge of an historic achievement.
Shanahan, who is one of this week’s Humboldt Sports Athletes of the Week, is a team captain and has been an inspirational force for the team all season long.
“She’s incredible,” Joyner said. “She just brings a lot of energy to the floor and she always has a positive attitude. She’s just a great player.”
Shanahan is one of two team captains, along with Fontenot, who also has taken her game to new heights this fall.
“She’s been a real threat at the net this year,” Joyner said of Fontenot. “She’s gained confidence, and once she saw what she could do it got her pumped up.”
The success of this year’s team, however, is founded on a deep roster.
And that includes industrious sophomore Sahara Tupua, who has been a force for the Crusaders both on the soccer field and on the volleyball court.
“That girl is amazing,” Joyner said. “She’ll get any ball she can. She hustles her butt off every game.”
Without Tupua on the court setting up plays, the team captains would be nowhere near as successful.
The Crusaders also have a nice balance this year, with four seniors, four juniors and some younger players making their presence felt.
The senior class includes Shanahan, Fontenot, Amaiyah Her and Aubree Saunderson, while juniors Jocelyn Sundberg, Ella Hart, Nina Clayton and Sarah Luna have all stepped up their game as they continue to gain experience.
“They’ve all come into their own this year,” the head coach said of the junior class.
Among the younger players who have played an immediate key role is freshman Brittyn Ikeya, who Joyner saw play as an eighth-grader and immediately knew she had a big future at the high school level.
The head coach says she was pleasantly surprised to see Ikeya join St. Bernard’s this year and the freshman has lived up to the expectations.
Sophomore Bailee White and freshman Kynah Tupua also have played key roles on this year’s team.
Regardless of Saturday’s result, St. Bernard’s will advance to next week’s NorCal tournament, with the brackets and seeds set to be announced on Sunday.
Ferndale is the only other H-DNL school, along with McKinleyville, to ever win a NCS title in volleyball, taking home a Class A title in 1976.
California Crosspoint is the No. 2 seed in the bracket.
The Rams are from Hayward.