The Fremont Firebirds varsity volleyball squad walked into an intimidating atmosphere Tuesday afternoon. And after a dramatic, come-from-behind, first-set win, it looked like the Firebirds might just pull off the upset. Facing the Castilleja Gators up in Palo Alto, the Firebirds entered the private all-girls school gymnasium that is decorated wall to wall with championship banners. The Gators squad this year also features two six-footers on the roster. Fremont’s tallest player this season is Lindsey Schulze, a five-foot, 10-inch middle blocker.
All that said, Fremont went into the first set and showed no fear, proving that height can be beaten by strong defense and sensational serving. Despite falling behind 17-9 in the opening set, the Firebirds rallied all the way back. Down 19-12, Fremont scored eight of the next nine points to even the set at 20-20. The comeback was fueled in large part by seemingly a dozen dynamic digs by senior Julia Tena, scintillating serving from Ashika Thomas and a huge block by Schulze.
With the first set getting into crunch time, it was Tena who started also coming up with both powerful spikes for kills and a deft touch for tip downs in uncovered spots on the floor. Tena’s spikes from the outside tied the score at 20-20 and at 21-21, before her perfectly placed change-up shot put Fremont in the lead at 22-21.
Castilleja would come back to retake the lead at 24-22, but a serve that landed long made it 24-23. An ace from Fremont setter McKenna Johnson evened things up at 24-24. Another kill from Tena made it 25-24 Fremont, but the following serve was short and we were tied again at 25. Fremont senior Ria Maheshwari delivered a kill to put the Firebirds up 26-25 and then a Castilleja shot would fall short into the net, giving Fremont the opening set win at 27-25. All told, the Firebirds outscored the Gators 18-8 after the 17-9 start.
“When we play together as a team and really grind it out, we can do so much more than what the final result was today,” remarked Tena after eventually losing the match three sets to one. “When we have aggressive serves and keep challenging ourselves, we are able to go on some of those nice runs like we had tonight.”
While Fremont would drop the next three sets 25-17, 25-18, 25-27, they did go on one last impressive run when it looked like Castilleja had the win wrapped up. Trailing 22-11 in the fourth set, the Firebirds rattled off five straight points to pull back within 22-16. Four of the five points, including three straight, came on spikes from Schulze in the middle, a strategy that the Firebirds hadn’t utilized much prior.
“[Schulze] is our middle blocker one, probably what happened was we talked with our setter to push the sets to the outside to avoid their taller defenders,” acknowledged Fremont Head Coach Annika Janson. “That’s what we focused on at our last practice, but perhaps we should have alternated a little bit more.”
Despite the loss, it was an impressive all-around performance against a strong opponent. Fremont was the better serving team, with Tena, Thomas and junior Nicole Stepanenko leading the way.