The Modesto High Panthers filed out of the locker room with tears tracking down their cheeks, tears of sadness combined with tears of sheer emotion.
Their latest excellent volleyball season had just ended in disappointment, a three-set loss Thursday night to seven-time reigning Sac-Joaquin Section Division I champion Nevada Union of Grass Valley.
There was no shame in losing to the Miners, the same team that knocked out the Panthers in the 2008 semifinals. It was just the finality of it all — a 32-7 campaign stopped by the section's resident powerhouse, this time in the quarterfinals 25-10, 25-19, 26-24.
"We definitely wanted to play them. I think we did pretty well. We just couldn't do it in the end," said senior Kaitlyn Klein, the Modesto Metro Conference MVP who closed her brilliant high school career with nine kills. "We definitely played with our hearts."
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A crowd of about 200 at Panther Palace watched a predictably potent Nevada Union team (33-9), one that towered over Modesto. It also admired the tenacity of the Panthers, who were overwhelmed early but gradually gained confidence until they nearly captured the third set.
Nevada Union, seeded lower than usual after losing the Sierra Foothill League title to Rocklin on the final night of the regular season, needed four sets to beat Lodi on Tuesday night. Conversely, Modesto turned back Vintage of Napa in a five-set thriller. The Panthers carried momentum onto their home court until they collided head-on with their old nemesis.
"They're highly improved from past Modesto teams," Nevada Union coach Bob Rogers praised. "No. 6 (Klein) is very strong. Late in the match we started to serve away from her."
Modesto was outclassed until midway in the second set when it gained traction and turned a rout into a more respectable 25-19. The Panthers then led for most of the final set thanks to Klein's wheelhouse stroke, the serving of Gianna Gallo (11 assists) and contributions from Genna Garrett, Alexa Garrett (12 digs), Michelle Couchman and Samantha Flores.
The match finished with a tinge of controversy. The officials stopped play due to an inadvertent whistle while the teams were locked in a 50-50 rally with the Panthers up 24-23 and poised for a win. Saved by the do-over, Nevada Union recovered with the second of three straight kills by senior outside hitter Abbie Miraldi, then capped the night via a netted spike.
"It's the game of volleyball. It's just the way it is," Modesto co-head coach Kayla Van Duyn reasoned.
"We were so much better against them (Nevada Union) this year," co-head coach Gloria Magana-Gentry said. "We're very proud of the girls."
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2302.