Keely Palla knew her moments would come, so she didn't mind sitting on the bench last year, nursing a torn ACL in her right knee while her Garces volleyball teammates competed.
Three big moments came Wednesday early in Palla's senior season, with the Rams trailing visiting Stockdale 16-15 and facing match point in the fifth set of a nerve-racking match.
Three times, sophomore Lyndsay Naworski set Palla on the left side. Three times, Palla hammered it with gusto, and three times, it found the floor. Garces 18, Stockdale 16.
"We had complete focus, even though there were those jitters in the back of your head," said Palla, who finished with a match-high 23 kills. "From past experience, we've learned that when we attack, they have no answer for us."
Rachel Hoover had 13 kills and four aces for Garces, Naworski finished with 32 assists and Natalie Pardo had 27 digs.
Last summer, Palla suffered her injury before the season started, forcing her to sit the bench, first in crutches and then in a knee brace, while her teammates made do without her.
"In the back of my head, I was thinking, 'Keely, take a look at this. You're going to be in this position next year, so you need to be there for your team,'" Palla said. "I learned more sitting on that bench than I ever have playing."
Garces' little gym was rocking all night long in a match that could have gone to either team -- and nearly did, several times. The Rams (4-3) took an early 20-8 lead in Game 1, then held off a furious Stockdale rally to win 25-21.
The Mustangs (3-4) responded with back-to-back 25-22 victories.
"We made some adjustments, and I was happy with those," Mustangs coach Maria Collatz said. "We really adjusted our block. Why it didn't still work in the fifth game is one of my disappointments."
Leslie Dolinar had 13 kills for Stockdale, and Layne Dillingham dominated at the net with eight kills and 10 blocks. Three double-blocks within four points from Dillingham and Saveena Smith even gave the Mustangs a brief 18-17 lead in the fourth.
But Garces won seven of the next nine points and then survived a tense Game 5 that was tied nine times.
"We have three sophomores and a freshman out there, so we're young," Collatz said. "We're going to have grow and get more mature as a team."
The Rams hope to improve too, but at this point, Garces probably feels more pressure. It's the only Division I program in the Southeast Yosemite League, so matches like this are precious chances to impress the seeding committee.
"I'm very proud of the heart of my team; we didn't quit, and we pulled it out," Garces coach Kim Harper said. "These mean a lot more. We have so few opportunities, so we need to take advantage."
At the center of it all was Palla, who has found her way from the sideline back into the spotlight.
"Sitting out, she was a good teammate," Harper said. "She came to every practice, she was really positive with the team. But she's beyond ecstatic to be back, and it shows."