It was a real Cinderella season for 's girls varsity volleyball team and their glass slippers were a perfect fit.
The Eagles rebounded from a third-place finish in the Alpha League to capture the and advance to the Division III state playoffs. Their improbable postseason run finally ended Saturday night in Palos Verdes with a five-set loss to Division 3AA winner Chadwick, but for the six seniors on the squad it was an experience they won't soon forget.
"I'm so sad that we lost because this team is my life," said senior setter Brenna Tharnstrom. "Honestly, the second they got the last point I realized this is it. It's hard to think I won't be practicing Monday. I've enjoyed every minute."
Tharnstrom was stellar in her last high school match, dishing out 61 assists, including 18 to fellow senior Nathalie Simon and 17 to junior opposite hitter Jackie Bowman (who added six blocks). It was also the closing salvo for four other seniors, libero Jocelyn Caster, outside/oposite hitter Virginia James (who finished with 10 kills), middle blocker Autumn Lee and defensive specialist Maddi Siegel.
"Jackie was on fire tonight so I tried to feed her as often as I could," said Tharnstrom, who plays club for Sports Shack with Simon. "The great thing about our team and why we're so hard to beat is that we have three awesome hitters, so other teams can't key on one person."
Brentwood Coach Jeff Porter has piloted CIF teams with better records, but few will be remembered as fondly as this squad, mostly because of the adversity it had to overcome on its journey.
"What makes it so special is that we've never done it that way before," Porter said. "We haven't been third [in league] since 1978 and we've never gone from third to winning the whole thing. Things looked pretty bleak going into the playoffs, but the girls started attacking more cerebrally and performed at a higher level than they had all season."
Perhaps the biggest win was the Eagles' 25-20, 25-22, 25-17 sweep of Rim of the World in the Southern Section finals because it was that team which ousted Brentwood in the semifinals last season, prevailing 19-17 in the fifth set. To Tharnstrom, however, the Eagles' semifinal sweep of archrival Campbell Hall was the most satisfying.
"That was the best by far because they're in our league and they'd beaten us twice, so we sort of had nothing to lose," said Tharnstrom, who wants to continue her volleyball career at Wesleyan University in Connecticut or another small liberal arts college in the east. "We felt we had an advantage because we weren't playing as well in league, so we saw what they did but they didn't really see us at our best. We played smarter the third time and had that intangible."
Brentwood, the No. 3 seed, entered Saturday's semifinal having won eight straight matches and 22 consecutive sets, but the second-seeded Dolphins quickly ended that streak by taking the first stanza 25-20. The Eagles, though, rallied behind wing attacks by Bowman and Simon and a six-point serving string by Caster to win the next two, 25-19 25-14, and push their hosts to the brink of elimination.
Chadwick, which had beaten Brentwood in four sets in a nonleague match in September, raced to leads of 13-3 and 17-5 to take the fourth set and force a winner-take-all fifth. The Eagles surged to a quick 3-0 lead on a stuff block by Bowman and Katie Russell, but Chadwick fought back to take its first lead at 10-9 and led 14-10 when junior outside hitter Abbe Holtz's spike deflected off Tharnstrom to end the match.
"The first time we played them we had two girls out but they just outplayed us tonight," Porter said. "There's a reason why they're 28-1. They passed the ball better and they played great defense. They had not gone five [sets] before, so we thought that might work in our favor but give them the credit. I've coached against Anita [Drennen] for 20 years and she always has great teams."
Despite Saturday's loss, junior middle blocker Rachel Enzer was glad the Eagles accomplished their primary goal.
"From the beginning all we were thinking about is [winning] CIF, so we fulfilled the thing we've been dreaming about since we were freshmen," Enzer said. "Once we got to the playoffs everything was on the line and we realized how much we wanted it. We had the motivation, everything started clicking and we played much better as a team."
Subbing in on certain rotations and serving two aces against the Dolphins was sophomore outside/opposite hitter Jahan Nanji. Other 10th-graders are middle blockers Areanna Sabine and Katie Russell and juniors include outside hitters Claire Oliva and Connie Varella and defensive specialist Juliana Bond, each of who contributed to Brentwood's impressive 23-8 record. The Eagles swept La Jolla of the San Diego Section in the first round of the state tournament.
Click here to view the CIF girls volleyball state tournament brackets.
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA REGIONAL PLAYOFFS
Division III Semifinals
(3) Brentwood (CIF-SS 3A champion) vs. (2) Chadwick (CIF-SS 3AA champion)
Records: Brentwood 23-8; Chadwick 28-1.