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Leading the way in volleyball

Erika Marmolejo was on her way home from school. After losing to Golden Valley in the regular-season finale the night before, the Merced senior and the rest of her volleyball teammates thought their season was over.

"I didn't think we had to go to athletics," Marmolejo said. "All of a sudden, I get a phone call from my coach.

"She told me to get back to school. I thought we had to plan our team banquet."

As it turned out, Merced's season was extended.

Dramatically.

As a No. 15 seed, Merced reached the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I semifinals.

For leading her team on its deepest run through the playoffs in more than two decades and turning in a stellar all-around season, Marmolejo is the Sun-Star Volleyball Player of the Year.

"It was a great way to go out," Marmolejo said. "No one thought we could go that far."

Gia Pridell led another group of girls who surprised a lot of people -- including Pridell.

Pridell is the Sun-Star Volleyball Coach of the Year after leading Le Grand to its first Southern League championship in school history.

"We had one returning junior," Pridell said. "I told people not to expect miracles with this team.

"We went to practice and I remember thinking, 'Oh my gosh, this is going to be a long season.'

"Then we just started winning games and it was like, what's happening here?"

Merced's playoff success didn't surprise Marmolejo.

It was how her team won that made it more special.

Merced overcame a 2-0 deficit against No. 2 seed Fairfield Rodriguez and a 2-1 deficit against No. 10 Folsom to win a pair of five-game thrillers.

"I wish all the people who came to our last playoff game against Davis could have seen that first game," Marmolejo said.

"It was incredible. It was so much fun. The Rodriguez fans were actually leaving after they went up 2-0."

It was Marmolejo's steady leadership that played a big part in Merced's success.

"She's the one that brings everyone into the middle," Merced coach Brooke Wilson said.

"You see teams break up when they get down a couple points. They stop coming to the middle after points.

"She made sure all six came together as a team. Every time we huddled on the sideline during a timeout, I'd give my spiel. After I was done, she always had something to add and her teammates always listened."

Why wouldn't they?

Marmolejo has been playing volleyball for most of her life -- along with basketball and softball.

She's taking three AP classes and held a 4.2 grade point average heading into her final year.

She's also pretty good on the volleyball court.

She led the team in digs, she was great at the net and was one of Merced's top hitters.

"Very few players play all around the court," Wilson said.

"Her jump serve was huge in terms of aces. She worked very hard on that.

"Her service return was so good, teams didn't serve to her. She came up big in our block.

"Her ball placement is great. Her ability to put the ball in the right place is beyond this level.

"She's excelled in every area of volleyball."

Merced's playoff run finally came to an end in the semifinals when it was swept 3-0 by Davis Sr.

Marmolejo and Co. ran into a team that seemed to have an endless supply of 6-foot girls lined up at the net.

"We tried not to think about it," Marmolejo said. "We made it to the semifinals and we felt we belonged there.

"We just came out flat. Not that Folsom and Rodriguez were bad, but Davis brought their game."

It was a thrilling run that Marmolejo will always remember.

"Every team has their ups and downs," she said. "We gave all we could give and we had fun doing it."

Shawn Jansen is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2462 or via e-mail at sjansen@mercedsun-star.com

Players of the Year

Today is the sixth part of the Sun-Star's eight-day series spotlighting the fall's top prep athletes. Here's the rundown:

Today Volleyball

Saturday Football (Coach and Defensive POY)

Monday Football (POY)

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