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By Loren Kopff
Gahr first-year head coach Iris Murray was hoping to keep a bit of important information from her team until after its regular season home finale with Warren this past Tuesday. But the significance of the match with the Bears was too great to keep inside her.
The Gladiators listened and responded by knocking off Warren 25-19, 21-25, 25-19, 20-15, 15-13 to secure second place in the San Gabriel Valley League and send the Bears to third place. After falling to North Torrance a day later, Gahr will enter the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section playoffs with a 12-9 overall record, including a 7-3 mark in the league.
“Usually I wouldn’t tell that to the girls because I didn’t want to psyche them out,” Murray said. “But I just went with it. [I told them] we need to win this game, we need to be the second place seed out of the San Gabriel Valley League, not the third. I told them if we’re in third place, we might have a wild card game on Monday and we might be on the road.”
Junior middle blocker Olouma Okaro served six straight points at the beginning of the first set and Gahr never trailed the remainder of the set, leading by as many as eight points twice. Senior outside hitter Aaliyah Heckard had eight kills in the set while Okaro added six along with three aces to account for 17 of the 25 points.
Warren turned the tables in the second set, opening to a 9-4 lead and never trailed despite Gahr getting to a 17-16 deficit following an Okaro kill. But in the third set, Okaro’s 12th kill broke an 8-8 tie and moments later after an ace from sophomore setter Frankie DiIorio, Okaro pounded down three more kills to make the score 15-9.
Just like the second set, Warren dominated the fourth set, leading early 12-5 and never looking back. Then in the fifth set, Okaro served three straight points to put Gahr up 5-2. The Bears rallied to take leads of 6-5 and 9-7. After that, it went back and forth until a serving error put Gahr up 13-12. Okaro added her 24th kill and after a side out, the match ended on another Warren serving error.
This was the seventh time since 1998 that Gahr and Warren have played to a fifth set. During that time, Gahr has played in a fifth set only two other times in league action, both coming against Paramount. The combined margin of victory for Gahr in the six sets it won against Warren this season was 23 points while the four sets won by Warren were by a combined 27 points.
“We have improved a lot over the past three seasons,” Murray said. “A lot of the girls have been playing volleyball outside of high school and that’s one thing that helps. During the first Warren match, I told the girls let’s start a new tradition. We need to beat Warren in the first round and in the second round. We used to do it in the 90’s and early 2000’s. But now, we need start doing that all the time.”
Heckard led the Gladiators with 29 kills while senior outside hitter Jewelyn Sawyer added 16 kills. Sawyer, a basketball star at the school, originally wasn’t going to play volleyball this season. But she returned to the lineup on Oct. 4 against Dominguez and the team has gone 8-3 since then. Sawyer was also recently given the CIF Leadership Award.
“If we just take away the fact that she’s tall and she’s a great athlete, her being a vocal leader on the court and being a great teammate on the court has helped us a lot,” Murray said. “She has been recognized as being a great leader in athletics and we’re really glad to have her.”
Gahr hopes to get past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2005. The Gladiators have also had a piece of second place for three straight seasons.
“In the past, sometimes we get an unlucky draw,” Murray said. “Sometimes in the past, the girls have not been as experienced, so they let their nerves get the best of them. This year, being in Division II-AA, it’s a new division. We know a couple of teams in the division but we don’t have any experience playing a lot of them. It’s going to be a challenge this year and I’m hoping, with our number two seed, we can get past the first round and surprise some people.”
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