Hilmar volleyball star Emily Baptista picked up right where she left off after a historical sophomore year for the Yellowjackets, only this time it was a national setting as her 16-year-old Rage club captured gold at the Junior National Championships in the American division in Minneapolis, Minn.
In the four-day tournament that began on Monday for the 16s and concluded on Thursday, the team finished atop the standings — not an easy task for the Rage club who battled injuries all season long. But when the grand stage approached the team, all 12 girls were together for one final run.
"We just kept reiterating that we pulled a high school team and they made each other great," Rage 16s assistant coach Kim Evans said. "One of the hard things was saying that we are not here for college coaches but to play for each other and thanks to all 12 girls we powered through and played for each other. We told the girls this was our time and we will focus match by match."
It ended up being a perfect story ending for the Ripon-based club who toppled their opponents, taking nine of their 11 matches in straight sets as they went on to finish with a perfect 11-0 record.
"We knew this could be the time to peak, but obviously we had a lot of lineups with injuries… but took a bit to get rhythm down and everything but we just got better and better every match and was exciting to watch," said Evans.
It was a choppy road taken by the Rage 16s, who were depleted from injuries and struggled to maintain a healthy core. Once in the tournament the 16s seemed to be determined for greatness but it began with a really tight game in day one after barely beating T-Street from South Carolina in three games, 2-1, dropping the first 24-26 then bouncing back to win it 25-11 and 15-8.
The next nine games were won in straight sets by the Rage, who dominated their opponents and didn't let down once as they began to click and improve as every match progressed.
"I think with the season as it progressed, once we played regionals and scored enough points to win, we knew our goal was to go in and medal and, obviously, we all wanted the gold, it's tough putting the pressure on," said Evans.
Led also by Gregori High star Merritt Stewart as the digger, along with Baptista, the 16s played G Force out of Wisconsin for the championship game.
Both teams went back and forth as the size of G Force was obvious, but Stewart and Baptista weren't intimated, leading the squad.
The Rage won the first game 25-20 then dropped the second 22-25 only to come back and win the final 15-12, earning the Rage club their first gold ever in their six year history.
"I mean we knew we had it in the last two points and the bench went down on the side and they ran around on the court, tears, hugging and jumping. From a coaching standpoint it was just a sense of satisfaction and that we really did what we came here to do," said Evans. "All the work and effort paid off to the ultimate degree."
When it was all said and done, Baptista finished the game with 11 kills, three aces and a solo block, earning the Most Valuable Player honors.
Stewart added on 19 digs for the final match and was named to the all-tournament squad.
"Emily is a dominant player, with a lot of good players out there but she was the person we continued to feed the ball to. She kept saying great things. Both her and Stewart were huge threats to everybody we played," Evans added.