Twentynine Palms volleyball falls in final, still makes history with runner-up finish
The Twentynine Palms High School volleyball team had already made school history by making the CIF-SS Division 8 championship game, but since they were there they figured they might as well go ahead and win it.
United Christian Academy, the No. 1 team in the division, had other plans, though. The visitors from Rancho Cucamonga made the trip to the Twentynine Palms High on Saturday and showed why they had the top billing.
The Eagles were in control all night, never trailing on the way to a 25-13, 25-13, 25-16 sweep and the CIF-SS Division 8 championship.
When the final shot, a kill by the Eagles' Marissa Heimbaugh, hit the ground, it touched off a celebration on their side of the net, while the Wildcats could only stare in frustration. It was the kind of loss that had a sting that wore off quickly, though, for two reasons.
It was clear United Christian was the better team, and the Wildcats had already accomplished so much that they were playing with house money.
The last and only time Twentynine Palms had made a CIF-SS volleyball championship game before was 1977, that's 45 years, and no team in school history has accomplised more than this year's group. Along with this deep playoff run comes the honor of participating in the state tournament which starts next week -- a first for the school.
"This was amazing, I love playing in front of a big crowd like that. It really pumped me up, and it was great even though we didn't come out with a win," said Twentynine Palms junior Kyla Palpallatoc. "This run has been amazing, and I had faith in our team that we were going to make it this far, and I just knew that we could go for a ring."
While Palpallatoc saw it coming, the Wildcats being in the championship game was a bit of a longshot. Twentynine Palms finished third in the Desert Valley League, entered the playoffs with a modest 13-8 record and was never ranked in the Division 8 poll at any point during the season.
But they came together at just the right time, rolling through four playoff games including wins over the No. 6 team in the division (Cal Lutheran) and the No. 3 team (Ramona Convent) before facing the No. 1 team in the final.
"We have some talent and they really came together once the playoffs started. They never quit, even in this game, and they just played together in a way they hadn't during the regular season," said Wildcats coach Melissa McGivern.
United Christian Academy had too much speed, too much height and too much ... well, everything for Twentynine Palms to handle.
You could see some big-game jitters early from the Wildcats as miscommunication led to a couple of easy points for the Eagles, who didn't need any help.
UCA exploded out of the gates, scoring the first four points of the first set and rattling off two big runs to open up a 16-4 lead. From there, they cruised to a 25-13 win finished off with a kill by Hayley Hoffman.
"My team’s young, I think we started off a little rocky, and we couldn’t push through it. They are talented; congrats to United Christian for sure," McGivern said. "We've never made it to the finals, and it was a little nerve-wracking for us, especially at first."
The second set was a carbon copy as again the Eagles sprinted to a 9-1 lead and never looked back for another 25-13 win. Athletic outside hitter Tamara Aimufia was a problem all night, elevating to hammer home kills on multiple occasions, quickly quashing any small moments of momentum the Wildcats might muster.
The third set showed the Wildcats' fight. This time they didn't let UCA jump out to an early lead.
With sophomore Lindie Stewart serving, the Wildcats rattled off four points in a row to erase an 8-4 deficit and tie it up at 8-8. The home crowd was officially roaring for the first time, but the Wildcats could never get that point that would give them the lead.
United Christian Academy relied on its stars to go on a patented run. With talented setter Marina Segura serving, the Eagles scored six points in a row, including three aces by Segura, two kills by Aimfia and a kill by Heimbaugh.
What was an 11-10 lead ballooned to 17-10 and the rest was inevitable. The two teams essentially exchanged points the rest of the way, before UCA could finally celebrate their championship after a 25-16 win.
"We're not used to such quick games and being on the wrong side, but they were a really good team, and it was still fun to be out there," Palpallatoc said.
This year's team was an interesting mix of talented underclassmen and a group of seniors who played key roles.
That senior group, which includes Anisia Rios, Zemira Mosqueda, Alexia Hanson, Gabrielle Wunderlee, Itzel Solorio and Destiny Cisneros, will be missed, there's no doubt. They provided the glue that enabled this playoff run, but there will be a lot of talented Wildcats coming back.
And there's nothing like the taste for winning that comes with a deep playoff run to motivate a team the following year and encourage more players to join the team.
Palpallatoc, Stewart and talented sophomore setter Jenica Silvas will provide a solid core, along with sophomore Tui Young and junior Olivianne Ryan as the Wildcats try to repeat this historic run next year.
"We learned a lot in this game, definitely about keeping a focused mindset," Palpallatoc said. "That's one thing that really got to us and it's a big part of the game. I have the same confidence that we'll do well next year as I did this year. Our vibe, our chemistry together is amazing."
McGivern and the Wildcats will learn their state playoff destination and schedule when the bracket comes out Sunday. It will be another big moment for this group, who quickly wiped away their post-game tears and were happy to celebrate and take photos with the runner-up plaque.
And why not? No other volleyball player in the history of the school has held a runner-up trophy in 45 years.
The Wildcats are only the 15th desert team to play for a CIF-SS title, and the first since Desert Christian Academy won a title in 2019. The 1977 Wildcats team that also made a semifinal, lost 15-2, 15-5 to Bishop Diego in the Division 1-A final.
"They should all be so proud. It's a historic team. That will always be the case," McGivern said. "We didn't win the title, but we did earn this runner-up trophy. And that's not a small thing."
Shad Powers covers high school sports for The Desert Sun. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Desert teams in CIF-SS volleyball finals
This is a list of the 15 times a desert team has played for a CIF-SS volleyball title
1977: Bishop Diego beats Twentynine Palms 2-0 (1-A)
1983: Indio beats Connelly 3-0 (1-A)
1984: Nordhall beats Indio 3-1 (2-A)
1997: Covington Christian beats Desert Christian 3-1 (V-A)
1998: Baptist Christian beats Desert Christian 3-0 (V-A)
2004: Hesperia Christian beats Desert Christian 3-2 (V-AA)
2005: Desert Christian beats Laguna Blanca 3-2 (V-AA)
2006: Desert Christian beats Baptist Christian 3-0 (V-AA)
2007: Village Christian beats La Quinta 3-0 (III-A)
2010: DCA beats Sierra Canyon 3-2 (5-AA)
2011: DCA beats Sierra Canyon 3-2 (5-AA)
2013: Riverside Christian beats West Shores 3-0 (5-A)
2014: Palm Springs beats Windward 3-0 (2-A)
2019: DCA beats Garden Grove 3-1 (D-7)
2022: United Christian Academy 3, Twentynine Palms 0 (D-8)
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Twentynine Palms volleyball falls in final, still makes history with runner-up finish