The date was Aug. 29 and Sonora was traveling to Angels Camp to face Bret Harte.
Bret Harte's Kylie Kester, left, and Sonora's Abby Runte are the 2011 Union Democrat All-Area Co-Most Valuable Players. Kester led the Bullfrogs to the Final Four of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV Championships. Runte led Sonora to a perfect record and Valley Oak League championship and to a playoff win. AMY ALONZO ROZAK/UNION DEMOCRAT
Sonora had won outright or shared a Valley Oak League title in six of the past eight years.
From 2008-10, Bret Harte had a combined three-year Mother Lode League record of 7-38. The last time Bret Harte had hung a championship banner was 1987.
But while watching Bret Harte junior Kylie Kester and her teammates warm up, Sonora head coach Kim Evans felt fear.
Recalled Evans, “I remember saying to myself, ‘We are in big trouble.’ ”
Bret Harte head coach Rich Juarez approached Evans during warmups.
“Well,” said Evans, “Rich said to me — casually, not boastfully — ‘I think our team can be pretty good this season.’ And I’m watching Kylie smack that ball and I was thinking, ‘This team will be really good.’ ”
Ultimately, Sonora won this match. Senior Abby Runte led Sonora in kills and was second in digs.
“Kylie also had played excellent and I was relieved we won,” said Evans. “So I said to Abby, ‘I was scared about winning this one.’ And Abby, meaning no disrespect to Bret Harte, says to me, ‘I wasn’t worried because we will win every one of our matches this year.’ ”
And Runte wasn’t far off with that prediction.
Outside of some preseason-tournament contests laden with perennial-powers, Sonora didn’t lose. That included a perfect run-of-the-table through 14 VOL contests.
Runte led Sonora in kills, was second in digs and earned VOL Most Valuable Player honors.
“The attitude that Abby showed in that August match against Bret Harte was the same exact attitude she carried through the rest of this season — that we couldn’t lose,” said Evans. “And she did everything she could to make sure we kept winning.
“What was also so interesting about that match verse Bret Harte is afterwards I was talking to Rich and I told him something which he probably already knew: That once his girls believed they were winners, they would become a great team.”
And that is what happened.
Led by Kester’s season-long earthquake-inducing spikes, Bret Harte captured the Mother Lode League title with a 12-3 record. Kester was named MLL MVP.
“I knew how well Bret Harte was doing,” said Evans. “And so, during the season, whenever Rich and I would talk we’d say, ‘OK, we’ll meet you at Davis.’ ”
The title contest of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV Championships is held at U-Cal Davis.
“We were semi-joking,” said Evans. “But I know Rich and I also both thought it possible. Both teams became very good.”
During the post-season, Sonora defeated Calaveras (3-0) in first-round play. Bret Harte advanced to the Final Four with wins over Hilmar (3-2) and Mariposa (3-0).
“When we needed something done, we went to Kylie,” said Juarez. “Kylie missed a grand total of one hit all year. She’s always smiling because she loves the game so much. She led us by her example. But if something needed to be said, Kylie would say it.”
So for overall outstanding play as individuals and for leading their teams to a championship and postseason success, Kylie Kester and Abby Runte are the 2011 Union Democrat All-Area Co-Most Valuable Players.
“That is a fantastic choice for this award,” said Juarez. “Abby is such a great all-around player. She puts her nose to the grindstone and gets the job done. She always seems to find a way to make things happen. I’ve seen her practice. Her work ethic is incredible.
“Kylie is the same way. She’ll do whatever it takes to win. Kylie understands the game thoroughly. I’ve never had a player better understand what I’m trying to get across than Kylie — both physically and mentally.”
“This is outstanding for both Abby and Kylie,” said Evans. “These are two very-well deserving players for this honor. What I’m most happy for is that both of them worked so hard to improve and everything paid off for them in order to get this accolade.”
“It’s an unbelievable honor!” beamed Runte, upon being informed of her award. “It’s amazing to be honored like this, it feels great and I’m very appreciative.”
“This is such an honor that I can’t even believe it,” said Kester.
Kester’s favorite 2011 volleyball memory, she says, “was when we got to dump water on top of Coach Juarez after we clinched the MLL title (Nov. 1).”
In that 3-2 thriller over Calaveras, Kester had a match-high 19 kills.
“If we didn’t have Kylie, we would not have had anywhere near this type of season,” said teammate Lauren Lane, who earned First-Team All-Area honors. “It seemed that after Kylie made her hits, opponents just stuck. They didn’t move. They had no idea what to do. When Kylie hit inside that 10-foot line, the ball just went straight down. It was ridiculous!
“Kylie was our leader. If you made a mistake, she picked you up. If you had a question, she knew the answer because she knows this game so well.”
“Kylie has the complete game,” said Bret Harte athletic director Heath Lane. “She’s effective from the back and front rows. I never once saw her get angry or get down. She is also an outstanding student academically.”
Like Kester, Runte not only hits volleyballs, she also hits the books.
In the fall, Runte is planning on attending either U-Cal Davis or Cal-Poly. She wants to study Cultural Anthropology and would like to play volleyball at the club level or intramural.
Her favorite 2011 volleyball memory, says Runte, “was beating Oakdale away in our last regular-season game (Nov. 1). We were weak in the beginning of the match and then in the fifth game we took complete control and won it.”
“Abby was so important to our success,” said Sonora libero Maddie Pallante, who earned First-Team All-Area honors. “Abby can do everything on that court — pass, hit, lead, everything.”
“Abby represents the tradition of Sonora volleyball at its very highest,” said Sonora athletic director Rick Francis. “The tradition of our volleyball program is phenomenal and Abby represents the Green and Gold very well.”
“I remember that I started playing volleyball in 6th grade at Sonora Elementary and I really didn’t even understand it,” said Runte. “I didn’t get the whole rotating thing and didn’t think much of the sport at first. By 8th grade, I became competitive about it.”
“I was probably 5-years old when I first picked up a volleyball,” said Kester. “My older sister (by six years) was playing and I was the water-girl. And then I just put in years and years of practice.
“It’s hard to explain what I’m thinking when I see that perfect set. But you’re in the moment — you want to hit that ball straight down.”
“When you see a perfect set,” says Runte, “it’s exhilarating. All you want to do is slam it as hard as you can.”
“Kylie and Abby are both similar in their intense desire to do well personally and for their teams to win,” said Evans. “Abby was frustrating to play against because she’s so crafty. Kylie was so successful because she’s so confident in her ability to hit and dominate.”
“Kylie has unmatched power,” said Juarez. “Her hits are lightning. Abby is really creative with her hits and is outstanding with her tips.”
“Abby was our glue this season,” said Evans. “She kept everybody where they needed to be — physically, emotionally and mentally.”
With a laugh, Evans adds, “As for Kylie ... I am not looking forward to facing her next year!”