Girls’ varsity volleyball ends three-year drought against Hillsdale


Michelle Moshkovoy

Sophomore left outside hitter Ella Duong attacks in Burlingame’s coveted home matchup against rival Hillsdale on Oct. 18.

Michelle Moshkovoy, Sports Editor

Girls’ varsity volleyball (PAL Bay 11-2, 21-5) has had their October rematch against Hillsdale High School circled on their calendar since their bitter 3-0 loss to the Knights on Sept. 22.

On Tuesday night, the Panthers turned the tables to sweep the Knights 25-20, 25-15, 25-23 with the backing of a rowdy, electrically-charged home crowd sporting pink for breast cancer awareness. 

But more than one game was on the line: the victor would break a three-way tie between Hillsdale, Burlingame and Aragon High School for the No. 1 spot in the Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division. And Burlingame had a chance to beat defending league champions Hillsdale for the first time since the fall of 2019. 

Off the court, it was the team’s long-awaited “Dig Pink” game in honor of breast cancer awareness. Players’ favorite teachers, whom they gave roses prior to the match, were watching intently in the bleachers.

“I think we all knew coming in that one: we have all of our favorite teachers. Two: it’s ‘Dig Pink’ — that we all really need to step up and we all wanted this game,” sophomore Jillian Kiniris said. “We all want every game, but this one especially.”

The Panthers got off to a quick 8-0 start in the first set following multiple uncharacteristic receiving errors from Hillsdale and a strong service game from sophomore left outside hitter Ella Duong.  

“Talk it over!” the Burlingame student section trolled with the large early lead, and the Knights did exactly that to recuperate during a time-out. 

After the time-out, Hillsdale outscored Burlingame 11-3 to eventually tie the set 11-11. The Knights registered back-to-back blocks to make it 10-4, killed a serve receive that flew into their side of the court at 11-7 and capitalized on receiving errors by the Panthers. This time the outnumbered Hillsdale section screamed and chanted, “We’ve got sophomores!” alluding to the Knights’ Allison Khau and Natasha Abbaszadeh. 

But Burlingame stopped the run in its tracks. Senior libero Mallory Novitksy made an impressive dig that led to a kill from junior outside hitter Maddie Langilanis at 12-11. Hillsdale then won a 50-50 ball to make it 12-12. 

While the momentum shifted back and forth over subsequent possessions, a Duong attack and an ace from junior setter Sophia Knifsend at 17-15 gave the Panthers a lead they would never relinquish. 

At 23-19, the Knights made a sneaky dump, but Burlingame answered right back with a strong attack. With their backs against the wall, Hillsdale tipped a shot over the net to survive a set point. 

On the second set point, the Knights weren’t so lucky. Burlingame sophomore setter Jillian Kiniris responded with her own timely dump to help the Panthers clinch the first set 25-20. 

“When Jill dumps, it really helps us…we get a ‘Jill kill.’ It feels so good because everyone is doing their job,” senior middle Sasha Grett said. 

The home crowd erupted, and Burlingame was one-third of the way to a victory — a confidence booster after three years on the losing side of the rivalry. 

In the second set, Hillsdale gained an early advantage with a quick kill. Toomey then initiated an attack, but a receiving miscue and net confusion on Burlingame’s end set them back 1-4. 

However, a Langilanis hit fueled a comeback to even the score at 5-5. Seizing the reins, Duong, Toomey and Langilanis led the Panthers on an offensive charge. In the remainder of the set, Burlingame outscored the Knights 20-10. On the winning point, Toomey slammed a kill into the open Hillsdale court. 

“The last [we played] we were in our own heads and today people were more relaxed. They just kind of shook off the errors that they made,” Burlingame head coach Nga Tran said. “As soon as they made a mistake, when they were away [at Hillsdale] they kind of shut down and they weren’t really moving….we just kind of bounced back faster today.”

Two down, one to go. 

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  • Sporting pink in support of breast cancer awareness, the student section roars in support of the varsity squad.

  • The varsity girls’ volleyball team rejoices after winning a possession.

  • Juniors Maddie Langilanis and Morgan Toomey gift pink roses to history teacher Annie Miller, to show their appreciation for her.

  • As part of a fundraiser with the Side-out foundation, a non-profit charity that raises awareness primarily through volleyball- related events, the Burlingame volleyball program sold baked treats, pink wrist-bands, shirts, jewelry, and other items in front of the gym entrance on Oct. 18.

The third set was tight from the beginning. All of a sudden, the Panthers found themselves down 19-21. Luckily, their student section had their backs. Fans — including a number of football players — all stood up, and a new chant rang in the gym’s atmosphere: “I believe that we will win!” 

A clever Kiniris dump at 21-20 once again proved effective, and Burlingame turned a final time to Duong for offensive firepower. Following a crucial block from sophomore middle Sophia Geminder at 24-23, Duong served the set point and the attack from Hillsdale went long to break Burlingame’s three-year dry spell.  

“Hey, hey goodbye!” Burlingame’s pink sea of supporters cheered as the Panthers rode the victory into the night.  

“They just needed to get through that hump,” Tran said. “If you talk about how many years they’ve been beaten by Hillsdale and then to be able to overcome like tonight, I think for them it’s a sigh of relief. In the future it’s not going to be in their head…we’ve gotten one off our plate that we wanted to accomplish this season.” 

In the future it’s not going to be in their head…we’ve gotten one off our plate that we wanted to accomplish this season.

— Nga Tran

The team, notably Langilanis, was ultimately able to pick up sharp angle attacks that the outside hitter sent and weakened Hillsdale’s outside game, while controlling the ball. 

 With freshman middle Ava Scatena and sophomore middle Abbi Aufhauser out with sickness and an ill-timed injury before the game, Tran applauded Grett and Geminder for quickly filling the holes in the roster. 

“[Grett] has been stepping up, and she’s kind of fighting for the starting spot,” Nga said. “And then Sophia stepped into the role…when we started the season she was probably third overall and then we just started training her elsewhere. Today we asked her to stand back…so she stepped in big as well.”

With Hillsdale losing 3-0 to Aragon on Thursday, Oct. 20, Burlingame and Aragon are now tied for No. 1 in an incredibly deep PAL Bay Division, where the top five teams have the potential to upset anyone, according to Tran.  

The Panthers will shift gears to the Spikefest II tournament this weekend at Milpitas High School, where they took first place last year in the 48-team golden bracket. The tournament is a last push before Central Coast Section play, where the Panthers will likely be rewarded the No. 1 seed in Division III or be placed in the open division. 

Many coaches will tell you that they’re already planning for the next game and postseason following a late-season match. Tran and her squad are no exception. However, that Tuesday night against Hillsdale, the team took a moment to bask in a valiant triumph — three years in the making.

“[I’m] just proud of these girls,” Tran said. “Seriously, they kind of held their own today in terms of overall attitude, just being able to hold themselves together.”