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Apollos loses to Central Catholic in the Class 6A quarterfinals thanks to blown call

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset head coach Lad Salness and the Apollo volleyball team were upended in the Class 6A quarterfinals.

In a volleyball match where the margin of difference between the two teams is so narrow, it's amazing how one incompetent call, a gaffe so egregious that it results in the most laid-back coach losing his cool, can catch dash a state championship dream.

The Sunset volleyball team led Central Catholic 22-19 in the second set of the Class 6A quarterfinals with the Rams serving. After dropping a winnable first set 25-22 in competitive fashion, the Apollos rebounded and were well on their way to evening the match and making this quarterfinal clash into a free-for-all.

As Central rose to serve from the backline, the ball, served from the right side of the court directly down the right side of the floor, nearly hit the "L" along the "LIBERTY" emblem in front of Sunset's bench, about a foot from the red line. The ball was out of bounds by a long shot. Every fan in attendance, especially Sunset's student section sitting directly behind the Ram server, could see the ball drop outside the line. Sunset head coach Lad Salness saw the ball land in front of his feet. Everybody saw the miscue, except for the referee. The side judge didn't raise the flag in his right hand. He ruled the ball landed in bounds. Point, Central.

The Rams, in the least surprising spree of the tournament, promptly tore off a 6-0 run and won the second set 25-22. With the momentum swung and the match all but gone, Sunset was swept 25-22, 25-22, 25-17 at Liberty High School on Nov. 8.

To be clear, there were plays the Apollos could have made on their own to decide the match. Referees are human, of course, and make mistakes. But to have such a critical call go against Sunset, in a match that was there for the taking, felt injudicious in some way.

"We were on a run and that just turned it around," Sunset senior Birdie Zevenbergen said. "You never want to a game on a ref. But that changed the mood of the game. It switched the whole momentum of the game."

There is no instant replay in high school. There are no ways for coaches to challenge a call. The side judge didn't even stop play to get the head referee's point of view. There was no meeting of the minds, just a "play on". Salness, who is chill as they come, even in the crux of a tough loss, was beside himself. In between the second and third set, Salness let the incredulous ref know what's what in no choice words and was promptly given a yellow card for "minor misconduct". It was well worth it considering the circumstances and a blown call that snowballed into a three-set sweep.

"You see what could've been, so it's hard to come back from that," Zevenbergen said. "But we tried. In the first two sets, we were really focused on playing as a team and playing altogether to win. In the third set, we got in our head and kind of got separated."

Spectators watching all around the Liberty gym couldn't understand the gaffe. After the match, it might have the most talked moment of the quarterfinals, including Canby's miraculous comeback over Mountainside.

"Did you see the call?" was a common refrain as the first session of quarterfinal patrons exited the building.

Nonetheless, Sunset kept scrapping. Sunset was down 5-0 early in the first set and as much as seven points only to roar back and take an 18-17 lead. Once the Apollos steadied their nerves and channeled angst into aggression, they began to click.

"That was the hardest we've played this year," Zevenbergen said. "The crowd got to us a little bit, but we fought as hard as we could. In some games, we get in ruts, but we promised each other to relax, take a deep breath and come back from it. We all had the want and urge to get back on top and make it a close game."

Senior Ruby Kirk's ace gave Sunset a 22-19 lead in the second set. Zevenbergen, Sydney Hankel, Krista Santos, Ashley Van Gordon, Renee Geib and others all lifted their games collectively and poured into the team. They sacrificed their stats to make the right play, the easy play that would lead to team points. Sunset was tied 13-13 with Central in the third set before the Rams went on a 7-0 spurt to seize control. Mountainside swept Sunset in the consolation bracket to end the Apollos' season. Sunset finished the year 20-8 overall and 9-3 in the Metro League.

"When we got down, we fought for it together," Zevenbergen said. "We were super excited to play for fourth place. Obviously, mistakes are going to be made and things aren't going to go the way you want it to, but we tried our best and went all out. I'm proud of our team."

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