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Hilmar volleyball has dreams of playing Christian Bros. in section final

HILMAR -- Lindsay Miguel tipped the ball just over the Merced block for a kill.

The Hilmar senior sheepishly smiled as she turned to her coach Mike Alvernaz sitting on the bench.

Miguel knew what was coming.

"Hit the ball," Alvernaz said.

"It worked," Miguel quietly answered back.

"That won't work against Christian Brothers," said Alvernaz, referring to the Sacramento private school that has knocked his team out of the playoffs the last two seasons.

"Practice now."

After two straight Western Athletic Conference championships, Alvernaz's girls come into this season with lofty expectations.

With five returning senior starters, a third straight WAC title is obviously on that list.

However, to a girl, Hilmar wants to make a deeper run in the playoffs.

"We'd love it if we could play Christian Brothers in the final round (of the section playoffs) at U.C. Davis," three-year starter Cailtlin Benning said.

"We've been talking about that since summer league and even before school started. We want to get to U.C. Davis."

There's no questioning Hilmar's talent.

Benning is one of the top middle blockers in the area and leads the team with 61 kills and 16 blocks.

Miguel and Natalie Grubb are threats from outside and third-year setter Madison Harris runs the offense as well as any setter in Merced County.

"It's amazing watching her," Benning said. "When I'm out of the game, we'll sit on the bench and just talk about Madison and her amazing sets.

"She has the greatest hands I've seen around, by far."

Junior Stesha Brazil has given Avernaz a power hitter at the net.

"She came up from the JV team with raw power," Alvernaz said. "It's nice to have a little finesse game and power to go with it."

What's it like to have five returning senior starters, including three third-year starters?

"It's a nice problem to have," Alvernaz said. "It's nice to have third-year starters outside, in the middle and at setter. They know each other.

"For awhile, we kind of flew under the radar. We were a quiet small town that beat a few bigger schools.

"Now everyone is looking at us and they're not shocked at what we're doing. Our role has changed."

Alvarnez has done what he can to get his team ready for the type of teams Hilmar will see in the playoffs.

Hilmar (15-5) has played five Central California Conference teams this year.

Four of the five losses have come to bigger schools and the fifth to small-school power Ripon.

"In league, we'll get some good games from Patterson, but our toughest competition is going to be Orestimba," Alvarnez said.

"We picked up some of the bigger schools. We like to play as much competition as we can.

"Our girls want to push themselves to the next level."

Alvernaz and his girls all hope it leads to a trip to U.C. Davis at the end of the season.