Arcata’s Willow Ricca tries to sneak a shot past Eureka’s Malia Guilbert (left) and Makaila Napoleon (right). (Jose Quezada — For the Times-Standard)
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A little over an hour into Eureka’s home match against Arcata on Tuesday night, the Loggers appeared to be in complete control. After winning the first two sets the Loggers, amid a fuller-than-usual Jay Willard Gymnasium on what was Eureka’s senior night, were all smiles and high-fives. Up 12-7 in the third set Eureka girls volleyball team had to simply close out the frame to secure an outright Big 5 Conference title.

An hour later it was the Tigers who were all smiles after an improbable comeback victory in five sets (25-22, 25-15, 25-22, 25-15, 15-12) to deny Eureka, at least for the night, an outright league title. Eureka (6-1, 16-7), fresh off its first Big 5 loss of the season, will look to capture an outright Big 5 championship tonight when it faces McKinleyville (1-5, 10-7) tonight in McKinleyville at 6:30 p.m. for what will be the final conference game for the Loggers.

Arcata (3-3, 18-8), a day after spoiling Eureka’s senior night and perfect conference record, now holds, if only partially, Eureka’s championship hopes in its hands as it will host the second place team in the Big 5, Del Norte (3-2, 10-6), tonight at 6:30 p.m. If Arcata wins, regardless of Eureka’s performance at McKinleyville, the Loggers will win the Big 5 outright as a Del Norte loss would give the Warriors three losses and put them out of reach of the Loggers. Del Norte has three conference games remaining including tonight’s match compared to Eureka, who will finish conference play tonight. If Eureka loses tonight and Del Norte wins out, both the Loggers and Warriors will split the Big 5 crown.

Eureka’s Makaila Napoleon. (Jose Quezada — For the Times-Standard)

Tuesday’s match

It started as the majority of Eureka’s conference games have, a 4-0 lead in the first set, a few powerful kills from senior starters Makaila Napoleon and Peyton Suchanek and an ace or two from Paige Lyons. Eureka’s 4-0 lead in the first set morphed into an 8-2 gap and eventually a 21-15 margin as the Loggers made easy work of the Tigers in the first set. The second set played much closer then the first as both teams traded points until the scoreboard read 8-8. A thunderous kill from Napoleon, who finished with 10 kills, started a 12-2 run for the Loggers as they cruised to a second set win. Junior setter Malia Guilbert had a nicely placed and softly hit shot following Napoleons cannonball to put her Loggers up 10-8. It was mostly strength for the Loggers in the second set, however, as the majority of their points came from hardly hit kills. In addition to Napoleon, Suchanek and Sadie Hampton also had a few terrific plays in the second set to guide their Loggers to a 25-15 win.

“I thought we started off strong,” Eureka head coach Rachel Evans said. “We were in sync and communicating well.”

The third set started much in the same way as sets one and two began. Eureka jumped out to a 12-7 lead behind big plays from its leaders. A few errors and missed shots allotted Arcata enough points to stay in the match, but all appeared to be business as usual for Eureka. Then Arcata began its comeback. What was a 12-7 lead for Eureka quickly became a 15-15 tie after a litany of Logger errors and some hard-nosed play at the net by Arcata’s Willow Ricca and Maya Mircetich.

“As soon as the momentum began to shift, our shoulders started to drop and we lost focus,” Evans said. “They took our energy.”

Arcata battled to a 22-22 tie in the third set before pulling away for a 25-22 victory. More than half of Arcata’s points in the set came from Eureka errors or misplaced shots.

Eureka’s lack of focus extended into the fourth set as Arcata seized the early initiative, taking an 8-6 lead. Several times Eureka, uncharacteristically, would allow a ball to drop in-between three or four players purely due to a lack of communication. Arcata, however, honed in as a team and made very few mistakes in the fourth and fifth sets. In the fourth set, Lilli Bowman, Ricca and Mircetich controlled the net and sent back powerful shots from Eureka, shots that had landed as Logger points earlier in the match. Arcata pulled away to win the fourth set 25-15.

“We had a shaky start, and that’s happened several times this season,” Arcata head coach Laurie Griffith said. “We just got hotter as the night went on, we dialed in our hitting and became very efficient.”

Arcata’s Mekaynea Solia and Maya Mircetich gather before a shot during Arcata’s win over Eureka at Jay Willard Gymnasium, on Tuesday. (Jose Quezada — For the Times-Standard)

The fifth set was as raucous as any volleyball match in 2018 as Arcata and Eureka traded the lead multiple times. It was Ricca, however, who proved to be the difference late Tuesday night. The senior middle blocker accounted for almost half of her team’s 15 points in the final set, coming up with bone-shaking blocks and expertly placed kills in key moments for her team. Tied at 6-6, it was Ricca who extended her team’s lead to 9-6 with a block, kill and an expertly placed shot which painted the back corner of the court. Eureka, determined to hold on to what should have been a straight sets win, took an 11-10 lead in the final frame before Ricca tied the match with a kill. Sitting at 11-11, Mircetich gave her Tigers the late match advantage with a kill that proved simply to be too strong for Eureka to handle. After a mishandled ball by Eureka, Arcata lead 13-11. Ricca finished the Loggers off with a block followed by her eighth kill of the night to steal Eureka’s senior day. Mircetich finished with 10 kills, Bella Peterman had eight kills and Mekaynea Solia finished with eight kills for Arcata as well. Bowman had 22 diggs during Tuesday’s win for Arcata and Lola Renteria had 35 assists to lead her team. For Eureka, Suchanek finished with 14 kills and three aces, Napoleon finished with eight kills, five blocks and three aces and Paige Lyons accounted for 29 assists and a team-leading seven aces.

“Eureka’s always our biggest rival, the first time we saw them this season we didn’t play too well but this time we played much better and got the win,” Ricca said. “I don’t want to lose on my senior night, so it’s hard winning a game like this when you know the other team wants it bad, I love those girls on Eureka and they played really well tonight.”

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