ALBANY -- As the last serve skidded off the arm of Brittany Heise and onto the floor of the gymnasium at St. Mary's High School of Albany, the members of the Ripon High volleyball team slowly turned and made the walk to their bench.
On the other side of the net, the Panthers celebrated their hard-fought 25-22, 25-23, 24-26, 25-19 victory over the Indians in the first round of the CIF Northern California Regional Division IV playoffs Tuesday night.
Ripon's season is over at 34-9. For the second consecutive season, it ended in this round. St. Mary's moves on to play Harker in a semifinal match Saturday.
There were smiles on the faces of some Ripon players, satisfied knowing that for the second consecutive season they advanced to NorCals. But there were more than a few sighs of frustration as well.
"Just like Christian Brothers in (last week's Sac-Joaquin Section Division V championship), this was a match we could have won," Ripon coach Larry Keethe said. "The girls played well. They had so many chances. But we just couldn't get it done."
The Indians faced an uphill battle from the beginning. St. Mary's scored the first six points before Ripon recovered. And nobody had an answer for 6-foot-2-inch outside hitter Tarah Murrey.
She pounded 37 kills in the match. They came from the left side and from the back row. She powered the ball over blockers and finessed it past them as well.
"She was amazing," said Ripon outside hitter Kirsten Duren, who led the Indians with 19 kills. "We knew she was good, and we knew she was the one we had to stop. But that was easier said than done."
The Indians slowed Murrey at times, mainly with timely digs by junior libero Meredith Perkins (37 digs).
"Meredith's arms must be sore, because she hit it so hard," Duren said.
But Ripon was never able to stop Murrey completely. She had at least eight kills in each game. And in the fourth game, she served two key aces in a row to put it away.
"It was like they were targets at target practice," Keethe said. "But we bashed the heck out of the ball, too."
Heise finished her high school career with a 13-kill match, and junior middle hitter Jenna Dunkel (13 kills) had one of her best matches of the season.
But the Indians will rue the match's second game, one in which they had a 22-20 lead and gave St. Mary's two of its final five points on service errors.
"We let them get away," Keethe lamented.
The future is bright for Ripon, though. Heise is the only senior on the roster. Some of the key cogs include Duren, who was one of the best players on the floor, freshman setter Kelsey Johnston and Perkins, who made several big saves of Murrey hits.
"Most of the team returns, and everybody knows this is the second time we've lost in this round," Duren said. "Hopefully, we come back even stronger next year, and go even farther in the playoffs."
Bee staff writer Will DeBoard can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2300.