At the end of the Division 5 state playoff match between the St. Monica Academy Crusaders and Upland Christian Academy Lady Eagles on Nov. 28, the St. Monica players remained so upbeat after dropping their third game of the match that I thought to myself, “Wait ... is it actually best of seven? Not best of five? Is the match not over?”

Shortly thereafter, when I saw the Crusaders thank their supporters in the crowd — who had made the trek from Pasadena to Rancho Cucamonga High School for the final game — I realized that the match indeed was over, and that St. Monica’s Cinderella season, which had shattered preseason expectations and earned them their first-ever CIF-SS title, had finally come to an end. But the postgame mood on the St. Monica sideline wasn’t bittersweet, but rather happy.

And no one was happier for them, or prouder of them, than St. Monica head coach Darren Bradley. “[After the match] I said, ‘Look it — we won a section title. Whatever else happens, you gotta go home and be proud of that,’” says Bradley. “And we made the quarterfinals of state. At the beginning of the year, we definitely weren’t thinking section final. There’s really nothing to get sad about.”

Though both Bradley and his players were well aware that they had their work cut out for them in facing Upland Christian, the tournament’s number one overall seed, the Crusaders appeared to be up for the challenge, trading points with the Lady Eagles in the early stages of Game One. It didn’t take long, however, before Upland Christian’s height and athletic advantages began to shine through, as the Lady Eagles amped up their play en route to a 25-16 win.

“They were the better, more consistent hitting team,” says Bradley about Upland Christian. “They just had more power, and they were a little more athletic than us. They could get up above our blocking, and that hurt us on defense as well.”

Despite Upland Christian’s Game One dominance, St. Monica appeared totally undaunted as it took the floor for Game Two. Thanks to some powerful hitting from seniors Therese Boles, Michelle Hall and Francesca McCall, as well as some outstanding play around the net from senior Rose Goodwin and juniors Sophia Vega and Molly Hagan, St. Monica established a 15-8 lead and appeared to be in complete control.

This time, it was the Lady Eagles’ turn to calm down. And they did so in a big way, engineering a torrid 10-3 rally to tie Game Two at 18 apiece and, in the tension-wrought finale, pulling ahead for the 25-22 Game Two victory.

“We played about as well as we could have, but some of our weaknesses showed through defensively,” recalls Bradley of the turning point in the second game.

To the credit of the St. Monica players, their effort never diminished in Game Three, and the raucous Crusader faithful never stopped rooting them on. But everyone in the building seemed to sense that, after relinquishing the lead in Game Two, St. Monica didn’t have anything left in the tank.

A three-point rally fueled by a few stellar diving digs from sophomore Yamila Evans midway through Game Three made the score 15-10, but things never got closer than that, as Upland Christian forged ahead and sealed the sweep with a 25-16 Game Three win.

Despite being swept, the St. Monica players never stopped supporting one another, a trait Bradley says he noticed in his squad from the first practice.

“Their chemistry was really good. They’re a happy bunch,” claims Bradley. “When things are tough, everyone comes together instead of getting on each other. Their work ethic and their chemistry really made this team stand out.”

“I love my teammates,” adds Boles. “I’m really going to miss being with them, the car rides, the stops at In-N’-Out. The camaraderie we had; I’m really going to miss that.”

A freshman along with Hall and Goodwin on the 2012 team that lost in the CIF-SS finals, Boles couldn’t help but smile as she reflected on how she, her teammates, and the young program — which is only in its seventh season — blossomed during her four years.

“Obviously we got better,” she said with a laugh. “But when you’re a freshman, it’s easy to follow the leaders. This year, we [seniors] were the leaders, and I think my teammates really stepped up and became leaders as well. We really work as a team. I think that’s where we’ve grown the most: we all contribute, and don’t rely on anyone else to lead the way.”

And according to Boles, the sense of unity within the team mirrored the unity between the St. Monica players and their school. “We had a lot of spirit and a lot of fight,” says Boles. “Our school was super supportive of us. And we love our school. The unity between us and the fans helped us get this far.”