M. Terry / SFVS

Highlanders congratulate each other following a hard-fought win over Palisades.

Palisades Charter High of Pacific was an almost prohibitive favorite to win the 2017 Open Division title on Saturday, Nov. 11.

The top seed Dolphins, who have won more City girls’ volleyball championships (29) than any other high school, were a senior-deep squad that hadn’t lost since Oct. 20. And across the net for the final was the one City team they wanted to beat more than any other — Granada Hills Charter High, the second seed, which won the Open Division title last year at Palisades’ expense. But the Highlanders this year had to navigate through a harder than expected regular season that included nine losses, the most under Coach Tom Harp since 2011.

A slam dunk (even if that expression is from another sport) for Palisades, right?

“Oh no,” said Dolphins Coach Carlos Gray as the two teams were warming up. “Not as long has they have Carissa out there.”

That would be Carissa Bradford, a junior and powerful outside hitter whose strength of body and strength of will could carry a team by herself. And by the end of a gut-wrenching five-set final between two true heavyweights that had more emotional swings then a Dr. Phil telethon, Davis’ words proved sadly prophetic as far as Palisades was concerned.

Granada, led by Bradford’s 18 kills, had outlasted Palisades again by scores of 25-19, 7-25, 25-22, 16-25 and 15-13.

“I’m still shaking; it was exhausting,” said an exuberant Bradford, while hugging the championship plaque. “But the energy out there was out of this world. I’ve never played in a match like that.”

Granada Hills (22-9) had it’s own emotional rallying cry. Popular teammate and middle hitter Lily Eaves, a senior, had suffered a broken left leg in the semifinals against Taft and could not play. But she was there in the gym, crutches and all, cheering on the team. And her teammates had all written her uniform number “11” on their arms or shoulders with a magic marker.

It took everything Bradford — now the odds-on favorite to be named City Division I player of the year — and Granada Hills had to overcome the thunder strokes raining down on them from the Dolphins front court trio of Angela Burton and Abbey Kinney, both seniors, and Alex Laita, a junior.

Perseverance, however, has been a hallmark of every Harp team since he took over the program in 2008. Win or lose, the Highlanders will battle, and if the match lasts long enough they seem to figure out a way to come out on top. It’s one reason the program has now won six City championships since 2009.

None of them could have been anymore grueling —or as satisfying — than the one on Saturday.

“This team has come a long way from the beginning of the season to now,” Harp said. “The improvement has been phenomenal in all aspects of our game. It’s been an emotional finish because of Lily Eaves’ injury (broken left leg sustained against Taft in the semifinals). But the girls showed a lot of heart tonight.”

Palisades almost took that heart away.

The Dolphins (26-4) appeared surprised by the Highlanders aggressiveness in the first set, falling behind 9-1 and never catching up. They also allowed Granada Hills to basically steal the third set, letting a 22-19 slip away as the Highlanders scored the final six points.

But in the second and fourth sets, Palisades just clubbed Granada Hills with torrents of scoring runs. Neither game was close; in fact, the Highlanders appeared ready to fold under the Dolphins’ relentlessness at the net as Harp desperately looked for a combination of players to withstand the attacks.

“In Games Two and Four it didn’t look good for us,” Harp said. “We got stuck in a rotation or two, and gave up a run of points. That’s volleyball. That happens.”

The final set proved to be a fitting coda for the match.

Granada Hills burst out to a 6-2 lead; Palisades came back and went ahead, 7-6. Granada Hills spurted again to lead 11-7; Palisades promptly tied up the score.

It was still tied 13-13 when the Highlanders made their two biggest plays of the night. Bradford — who else — broke the tie with her final kill. That was followed by senior middle hitter Kristen Harwood, who blocked Palisades’ final shot at the net. The ball fell on the Dolphins side of the court. The Highlanders collapsed around each other, then ran into the stands to celebrate with Eaves.

“It was insane at times. And amazing at times,” Harwood said. “We fought so hard for this all year. We started from losing so many seniors and came back strong….I can’t believe it.”

“It’s the best [championship match] I’ve ever played in. It was the best one I’ve ever seen,” added Bradford. “It’s been really emotional since losing Lily in the semis…this was the most emotional match I think any of us have ever played in.”