Co-Captain Katherine Grow leaps to spike the ball across the court toward players from Holy Names University. Photo by Toby Silverman

By the fifth set, everyone in the West Field House was standing, tightly crossing their fingers and holding their breath as UC Santa Cruz women’s volleyball co-captain Katherine Grow served the ball. The fact that the Banana Slugs were down and nearly out in the final set didn’t even register with Grow.

“I didn’t think we were going to lose,” said Grow, a junior and a College Eight history major. “I have always had faith in my team.”

UCSC’s women’s volleyball win over Holy Names University on Friday night was climactic. With both sides splitting the first four sets, a UCSC victory was hardly assured.

The game featured numerous heated rallies exchanged by both sides. In the fourth set, UCSC took a seven-point lead, which Holy Names nearly overcame twice, only to be shut out by the rallying Slugs.

By the fifth and final set, Holy Names had an 8-4 lead before UCSC fired back six unanswered points thanks to some nasty spikes from junior middle blocker Ginger Berryman and outside hitter Grow. Finally, the Slugs had the momentum they needed to put away Holy Names. Game over. Holy Names had no answer for the Slugs’ onslaught.

“When you lose rallies, it’s important to keep your head up,” Grow said.

Before the comeback rally, UCSC huddled up to find their resolve. College Eight sophomore setter Jessica Peng, starting for the first time this season and the smallest starter on the team, had big words for her teammates.

“I said ‘infiltrate, destruct and destroy,’ in the huddle,” Peng said. “It completely worked.”

The set scores of 17-25, 25-17, 22-25, 25-22 and 15-13 show it was anyone’s game right until the end.

Holy Names furiously returned UCSC’s spikes throughout the fifth set, yet UCSC blocked their shots and continued putting points on Holy Names. UCSC’s blocking at the net was no surprise to Berryman.

“Blocking is one of our greatest strengths,” said Berryman, a College Eight student. “We had nine blocks, which is a big number.”

UCSC’s win over Holy Names was a “revenge game,” according to the team’s Facebook page. In an away game earlier in the year, the Banana Slugs suffered a heartbreaking loss in five sets to Holy Names in Oakland. It was their first loss to Holy Names University in four years.

“Every time we play Holy Names University, I expect to have a battle,” said UCSC women’s volleyball coach Todd Hollenbeck. “Holy Names is playing better than I’ve ever seen them play before.”

Hollenbeck placed Peng as setter for the first time this season. Peng delivered, recording 59 set assists out of 60, finding Berryman, Grow and freshman outside hitter Kim Rabii for some thunderous kills. Her total was the most in the game, and the most of any Slug this season. Peng was unaware of the statistic.

“It’s all about playing for your team,” Peng said. “Not just for yourself.”

Berryman was happy to get revenge.

“I absolutely thought we got revenge,” Berryman said. “Once we started our passing game, we just crushed them.”

Despite the Banana Slugs beginning this season with a 1-4 win-loss record, Hollenbeck has big plans for his upstart program. He wants to take the team to the NCAA tournament, where he thinks their style of play can upset a few of the tournament’s big names.

“Our game is more about defense than offense,” Hollenbeck said. “We’re fast and scrappy and we can handle multiple swings easily.”

Hollenbeck noted that the women’s volleyball team’s record has improved dramatically in the last few weeks. Indeed, since then the Banana Slugs have been on a 4-1 tear. Their record is a solid but not too showy 6-5.

“If you look at all those losses [during the 1-4 stretch], we lost to some of the top-rated Division III programs in the country,” Hollenbeck said. “We stood toe-to-toe with the No. 11 program [Cal Lutheran] in the nation and barely lost.”

The Banana Slugs face a slew of tough challenges with a game at Dominican University on Sunday, before entering the La Verne and Colorado Classic tournaments in the coming weeks. Hollenbeck said he expects big things from his Slugs when they return home to play Mills College on Oct. 18.

“I fully expect us to be 9-5 after the [La Verne] tournament.”