MERCED — Madisyn Gafford took Don Reid Court with a heavy heart Wednesday night.
The Merced College freshman's puppy, Xena, died in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. Rather than give into her grief, Gafford harnessed her emotions and unleashed them on Columbia College in a Central Valley Conference volleyball match.
With her pet's name etched onto each of her heavily taped wrists, Gafford turned in one of her best performances of the season. The middle blocker had 9 kills and 31/2 blocks to lead the Lady Devils to a gritty 25-23, 25-21, 25-27, 28-26 win over the Claim Jumpers.
"I was hurting a little bit, but I know these things happen," Gafford said. "She was just seven months old and was awesome, so I had to show her a little love.
"It definitely wasn't smooth tonight, but we battled the whole time. That's kind of what this team is all about.
"It's not always pretty but we find ways to grind it out."
The Lady Devils (6-5, 2-0 CVC) have proven that with four of their first 10 contests going five sets and MC coming out on top in three.
Wednesday evening seemed destined for a five-setter with little separating MC and Columbia.
Neither squad could establish an offensive flow.
The scrappy nature of the match suited Gafford and her teammates just fine. She made a name for herself a year ago doing the dirty work for the MC women's basketball team, and so she was at home in the occasionally difficult match.
Gafford's block and two kills in the opening set helped the Lady Devils build 5-0 and 12-5 leads. It wouldn't last.
Columbia (6-5, 0-2 CVC) rode a series of MC errors back into the set and eventually took a 21-19 lead.
Jenna Fournier (9 kills, 13 digs) answered with a big kill and an ace as the Devils closed out the set with a 6-2 run.
Behind Gafford, Fournier, Tekerra Borden (team-high 11 kills) and Maggie Jordan (8 kills, 2 blocks), MC closed out the second set with a similar run.
Things got a little tighter after that.
Lauren Lane (team-high 10 kills) and Miranda Storre (7 kills) led the Claim Jumpers to a 27-25 win in set three.
Columbia kept the momentum going into the fourth set, forcing MC to stave off a couple set points.
The Devils rallied one final time and Serryna Gonzalez (21 assists) finished the match off with a kill.
"You never really know what you're going to get with this team. They're a real roller coaster," MC coach Jessica Casey said. "The one thing I have seen is that they're going to fight.
"I wish they didn't always have to fight so hard, but at least they do."