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Lineup change works as Norwalk bounces back against Cerritos

SUBURBAN LEAGUE GIRLS VOLLEYBALL

By Loren Kopff

Very little was going right for Norwalk High’s girls volleyball match with host Cerritos High last Thursday afternoon. The Lady Lancers fell behind very early and couldn’t generate much of an offensive attack.

That’s when head coach Jesse Gonzalez made a switch in his serving rotation for the second set with senior setter Brenda Hernandez serving first instead of fourth and junior setter Anissa Uncapher the opposite, and the end results were more to Gonzalez’ liking. The Lady Lancers turned up their offense and backed by some stellar defensive play, knocked off the Lady Dons 13-25, 25-19, 25-17, 25-15. Norwalk improved to 10-8 overall and 4-1 in the Suburban League at the time and remained one full game behind Mayfair in the standings.

“A little bit of it was experimenting,” Gonzalez said. “I wanted to see how Cerritos came out and I knew either way it was going to work for us or it was going to work against us. So the rotation that I used was more of a defensive strategy more than anything.”

Uncapher was Norwalk’s first server of the first set and her team was already down 3-0 before she got to serve. Cerritos would take a 9-3 lead after four straight aces from sophomore outside hitter Jackie Kan.

While Cerritos was getting most of its offense in the set from freshman outside hitter Samantha Oh (six kills, two aces) and junior outside hitter Daisy Segura (three kills), Norwalk could muster only eight kills with half coming from junior outside hitter Ashley Whittall.

“I think [Gonzalez] put people where they were more comfortable,” Whittall said. “Everybody just already knew what to do.”

But Whittall and senior opposite hitter Norma Marquez would warm up in the second set and continued that momentum throughout the rest of the match. Whittall had three kills in the early moments of the second set to help give the Lady Lancers an 8-3 lead.

But Cerritos (6-5, 3-2 after the loss) rallied back and took a 13-11 lead following Segura’s sixth kill. However, an ace from junior libero Paola Nava put Norwalk in front 15-14 and the visitors would not relinquish the lead for the rest of the set. Whittall would collect seven kills in the set but Oh was keeping the Cerritos offense going with 12 kills to this point. The rest of the Lady Dons had combined for 15 kills.

“I noticed we needed more of an offense in that front line as soon as we started,” Gonzalez said of the change in his rotation. “So that’s why I made the switch and had Anissa play front in the second set. I knew we had to spread out their defense because they were picking everything up. Ashley couldn’t get any kills in that first set. It was a change I had to make to give Ashley a little more space by having another offensive threat on the right side.”

“After the first set, we were kind of down,” Whittall said. “But then Coach Jesse pumped us up and we pumped each other up. Then in the second and third and fourth [sets], we were just ready to go. We just kept getting better and better.”

Norwalk jumped out to a 10-3 lead in the third set as Whittall picked up three kills and Nava had consecutive aces, the first hitting right in front of the back line and the next one in the middle of the court. But Oh and junior middle blockers Lakshmi Martin and Ifeoma Okoli propelled the Lady Dons back with six combined kills as the hosts trailed 16-15.

However, senior defensive specialist Kathleen Perez had an ace followed by two straight kills from Whittall to make it 20-15 and two aces from Uncapher would be part of four straight points that ended the set.

“I think [Gonzalez] made a change putting in an extra defensive player for their leading hitter who had been playing across the front row, which stabilized their pass and probably improved their set a little bit,” said Cerritos head coach David Cuthbert. “Because we didn’t execute our game plan, I think we just got exposed.”

Cerritos led throughout most of the fourth set and was aiming to force a deciding fifth set. But with the scored tied 11-11, a tip from senior outside hitter Vanessa Cardenas gave the serve to Perez, where she added two more aces around a kill from Whittall. Then with the score 19-15, senior middle blocker Leslie Leanos had a block and Cardenas would record four straight kills to finish the match strong with 11 kills, eight of which came in the fourth set. But on this day, it was all about Whittall, who had a match-high 21 kills.

“She has actually learned a lot to her offensive game,” Gonzalez said. “She came in as a one- dimensional hitter, basically taking angle shots. But now she’s mastering the line shots; she’s made a lot smarter open hand tipping and roll shot. She sees the court a lot better.”

“I was just really nervous,” Whittall said of her slow start to the match. “I didn’t know what to expect.”

But what was even more impressive and an area of volleyball that is always overlooked is the defense and Norwalk had a banner day in that area. Nava finished with 36 digs while Hernandez added 14 more along with 18 assists. Junior defensive specialist Valerie Ortega had a dozen digs and Uncapher pitched in with 15 assists.

“The mindset coming into practice yesterday was our preparation to play defense, especially playing short balls,” Gonzalez said. “I knew coming in that we had to make sure we practiced that and that’s why I think Paola had a great day. She was playing short balls, tough driven balls and deep corners. She was helping cover both setters, whether it was Anissa or Brenda.”

Norwalk would get past Bellflower High 25-10, 18-25, 25-8, 25-16 this past Tuesday and hosted La Mirada High on Oct. 15 to begin the second half of league play. Norwalk will then be home to John Glenn High on Tuesday.

“That was huge,” Gonzalez said of the win. “After we lost the first set, the girls understood the severity of this game. Once they were told how many unforced errors they made in that first set, they started to calm down. They started thinking more and started playing cleaner. But the switch they made mentally was huge and that’s what I’m proud of. They made that all on their own.”

“They played better; they improved and there were a few things I was unhappy with,” Cuthbert said. “We didn’t execute on a couple of things we talked about before the game. We wanted to play defense a certain way and we were getting beat in a system, which is frustrating when we set up to defend against something and we get beat by that. It’s tough for us.”

Oh led Cerritos with a dozen kills while Segura finished with half of that total. The Lady Dons swept John Glenn 25-17, 25-9, 25-12 this past Tuesday and visited Mayfair on Oct. 15 for the first match of the second round. The Lady Dons will then go to Artesia on Tuesday before coming home to face Bellflower on Thursday.

“She doesn’t play like a freshman,” Cuthbert said of Oh. “She’s played a lot of volleyball before, so she has more experience than some of our older players. I don’t pay too much attention to what year they are. Once we’re on the court, it’s irrelevant. It’s Cerritos against Norwalk. There are no bonus points for playing freshmen.”

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