MERCED — Toni Garcia wanted no part of a fifth set.
Her Atwater volleyball team had smoothly built a 2-0 lead on Tuesday night, but eased up and allowed Golden Valley to find its legs.
The Cougars fought back to win the third set and scratched their way to a 21-21 tie in the fourth.
"I reminded them that our playoff lives were on the line," Garcia said. "We had to beat Golden Valley if we wanted to have a chance at the playoffs. We needed to finish it there."
The Atwater players responded, closing the match with a 4-0 run for a 25-17, 25-19, 17-25, 25-21 victory at Cougar Arena.
The win gives Atwater (9-6, 6-5 Central California Conference) sole possession of third place in the CCC with four matches to play and a 2-1 season edge over the Cougars (7-7, 5-6 CCC).
Hannah Van Warmerdam led the charge.
The junior outside hitter could do very little wrong in the first two sets, picking up points for the Falcons from all over the court. Van Warmerdam finished with a match-high 18 kills and six aces.
It was part of a very aggressive service night for Atwater.
"We've really been working on it in practice," Van Warmerdam said. "It's a big part of the game. They're free points that we can control.
"I'm usually a pretty good server, but I haven't always been on this year. Tonight, I was."
She wasn't alone. Atwater had eight aces in the match behind Van Warmerdam, Alexis Montoya and Lichen Denouden (match-high 35 assists).
The big serves exploited some defensive issues that GV had to open the match and allowed the Falcons to build 18-8 and 12-5 leads in the first two sets.
Golden Valley fought its way back into the match with an aggressive service game of its own.
Atwater raced to a 7-3 lead in the third set, but the Cougars countered with a 13-2 run.
Emma Zacharias (match-high 22 digs) and Belen Castillo (team-high 14 kills) were the catalysts. Each led GV with four aces as they forced a fourth set.
"For whatever reason we've just been in a funk the last couple weeks," Cougars head coach Matt Thissen said. "We struggled with our defense through the first two games.
"We did a nice job of not giving up, though. I was proud of the effort."
A pair of Van Warmerdam kills and a couple of GV hitting errors helped Atwater go on a 6-1 run and build a 13-7 lead midway through the fourth set.
Golden Valley rallied right back.
Kendra Barraso had three of her seven kills down the stretch to help tie the set at 21-21.
"Coach reminded us of the little things," Van Warmerdam said. "Not to take unnecessary chances, and if you're in trouble, just get the ball back over and let them make the mistake."
The strategy worked. GV committed a service error, a miscommunication and hit a pair of balls long to close out the match.
Buhach Colony 3, Turlock 1
ATWATER Allie Clarot's match-high 11 kills helped the Thunder pick up their first conference win, 22-25, 25-20, 25-16, 25-21, over Turlock.