Adrian Mercado slammed the volleyball on the other side of the net.

The opposing players had no answer. None. His kill in the second-to-the-last regular season game against visiting Madera South ended the set 25-19 in the Apaches’ favor. Sanger won the two previous sets 25-17 and 25-21 against a Stallions team that played hard but ultimately lost the battle.

Mercado and his teammates couldn’t have been happier with the outcome April 23.

“It was a good feeling,” Mercado said. “This time we came back and sent them a message. Tonight. Senior night.”

Mercado was one of those seniors. He and teammates John Her, the team’s setter, Aidyn Jalao, Jesus Gomez and Jose Duran celebrated their final season with family, big posters with their names and at least one bouquet that went to a little sister. 

Mercado said the win was actually a comeback, a bit of vindication from an away game against Madera South on March 28 in which Sanger lost in five sets 3-2. 

“Their coach said you were more disciplined,” said Sanger coach Scott Okada to the team after the game. “I told him they (the Stallions) were more disciplined (on their home court).”

Okada was pleased. “It was fun to watch,” he said of the April 23 match. “(And) that was the biggest crowd of we’ve had this year.”

And those filling one side of the Coach Dean Nicholson Gym were loud. Louder even than the Apaches varsity volleyball team. The crowd reacted especially vocally when Mercado slammed the ball to end the game. But the Sanger fans also reacted to previous kills by Jalao and Gomez that resulted in set points 23 and 24 for the Apaches. In fact, in those final minutes, the crowd, with the exception of the Madera South fans, got to its feet after the Gomez kill, sensing the win.Then Mercado delivered.

The Apaches played Bullard on April 25 to determine County Metro Athletic Conference standings that would calculate their seeding in the playoffs. Bullard, Madera South and Sanger topped the league standings, and a Bullard win would have resulted in a three-way tie.

Bullard didn’t go easy. The Knights won the first set 27-25. Sanger took the second 25-20 but lost the third 26-24. The Apaches came back and won the last two 25-13 and 15-9 to take the match in five games.

“Now we just have to focus,” Mercado said of the playoffs. “We’re feeling ready. We’re ready for whatever comes our way. The tournaments really helped.”

The Apaches had a 26-10 record after the Madera South game, with many of those coming from playing some of the best teams in the state and region. The team most recently participated in the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions in the second week of April, facing some pretty high-caliber competition.

Jalao said that practice helped. “Our confidence is very high going into the playoffs,” he said. “We feel we can compete with any team any time.”

Jalao got his right knee iced after the game. “We were just more composed this game, letting the game come to us,” he said.

Gomez got an ice pack between his shoulder blades, and the trainer strapped it with criss-crossed nonadhesive plastic tape like Pancho Villa’s bandoliers. Gomez then hurried over to greet his teammates in a classroom across from the gym. “Let’s go. Let’s go,” somebody shouted as he entered. Maybe it was him.

“Great win,” said Grant Harrison, a junior. “We’re looking at a No. 2 or No. 3 seed. It was great. A great statement to make after we lost in five. We know we’re the better team, but we have to show it every day.”

Brennan Taylor, a sophomore, acknowledged Sanger’s reputation for being a loud team. And he said it may work in their favor during the playoffs. “It frustrates the other teams,” he said.

Sophomore Aaron Ly said his Apaches aren’t afraid of any team they will face in the playoffs. “When we play together, we’re unstoppable,” he said. “In my heart, we’re the best.”

Clovis North garnered the No. 1 seed, but Ly said he’s not intimidated. “We’ll keep rolling through the playoffs. Hopefully to state.”

Duran said the victory was a good experience. “It’s a really good win,” he said.

“You just wiped them off the floor,” Marcos Mirales, assistant coach, told the team.

Bryce Hayes, an assistant coach who graduated in 2017, said he was impressed. “When I say you can take anyone in this league, I mean that,” he said.

The reporter can be contacted by email at nemethfeatures@gmail.com or by phone at the Herald at (559) 875-2511.

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