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Gahr High School hopes not to repeat inconsistency of last season, eyes very rare league title

Gahr hopes not to repeat inconsistency of last season, eyes very rare league title

By Loren Kopff

11-14 overall last season, 5-3 in the San Gabriel Valley League, tied for second place, lost to Norco in the Division II-AA first round playoffs
66-65 overall last five seasons
Head coach: Iris Najera (third season, 23-24)
Last time missed the playoffs: 2008
Key losses: Alicia Barron, Jennifer Diggs, Oluoma Okaro, SO Miranda Ta’amu
After finishing her rookie season with the girls squad, head coach Iris Najera finished last season three games under .500 despite finishing in second place in the San Gabriel Valley League, again, and posting a big road win at Downey for the first time since 1998. But this was also the same Gahr team that was upset by lowly Lynwood, leaving the Gladiators wondering if they were better than their overall record showed.
“Last season we were very inconsistent,” Najera said. “I think last season we had a very diverse team. We had a couple of talented athletes and a couple of role players and we had a hard time meshing together and playing as one team. This year, I think our team chemistry is much better and our communication is better.”
This season, Gahr returns seven players and will have 15 on the team as it hopes to dethrone league nemesis Downey from the top spot. If it can do that, it will be Gahr’s first league crown since 1998. This team is very solid with the return of senior outside hitters Destiny Hayes and Stephany Rodriguez, senior middle blocker Joselyn Govea, senior setter Frankie Di Iorio, and senior defensive specialist Sophia Arechiga. Di Iorio has the most time on varsity and as she goes, so will the team.
“I think she is the center of this team,” Najera said. “The girls often look to her to calm down. She’s always a calm leader; she never really panics or if she does panic, she does a good job staying composed. She’s a huge part of this team.”
Also returning will be junior defensive specialist Naomi Belgrave and sophomore backup setter Lorilei Saleapaga. But there will be several tough decisions for Najera to make. For starters, Di Iorio will have some competition as junior Niahni Moultry will also be a setter. Both bring different strengths to the table as Di Iorio has that experience but Moultry can put up a good block and has a lot of energy. Najera also admitted she’ll have a difficult time deciding who the libero will be. Junior Christal Constantino is in the mix with a couple of others.
Also new to the team this season will be senior middle hitter Jor’Dyn Flanigan, senior defensive specialists Chelsea Marfil, Sharon park and Kasandra Velasquez and a pair of junior transfers- Tyra Parrish from Mayfair High School and Kathryn Pedroza from Kennedy High School.
“There are a lot of options and it’s my job to find a lineup that works best,” Najera said. “We might have 10 or 11 people playing in every match. I like to keep people involved. I don’t want to have the bench get cold.
“I’m really happy with the progress we’ve made,” she added. “I have a large team this year with 15 girls and with all 15, they are the group that cares the most. They have really strong friendship bonds and I’m really happy with the way I’m teaching them how to play the sport [as well as] how to build relationships both on and off the court.”
Najera guided the Gahr boys team to the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section Division III finals back in late May. Using that as a motivating factor for the girls shouldn’t be too difficult as the girls were “unofficial members of the boys team”, according to Najera.
“They experienced that with the boys,” she said “They saw the team chemistry necessary to be a successful team and I know a lot of them want to experience that this year.”
Up until last season’s win at Downey, the Gladiators were swept by the Vikings the last eight meetings and 21 of the last 23. Gahr has not been better than 7-3 in the league since going undefeated in 1998 with a 10-0 mark. Look for Gahr to win more man seven league matches this season as well as advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
“I think player for player, we are more skilled and disciplined than Downey,” Najera said. “I do that Downey has one very talented hitter and she’s a good leader, too. I feel if we are able to limit her options and do our job, then we definitely are capable of beating Downey.”