_____________________________ ST. NORBERT CHURCH           RATES _______________________


CIF-SOUTHERN SECTION DIVISION II-AA VOLLEYBALL PLAYOFFS Valley Christian knocks off Artesia Blvd. neighbors minus leading hitter, setter

By Loren Kopff

Melody Nua, the first-year head coach of the Valley Christian girls volleyball team was preparing for her squad’s California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section Division II-AA first round match with Gahr. Then with 10 minutes remaining in the pregame warm-ups, senior opposite hitter Karly Dantuma sprained her left ankle after accidentally landing on a volleyball.

Immediately, Nua had to make some last minute changes to her lineup and despite Dantuma and junior setter Chloe Winter out of commission, the Lady Crusaders still had enough to eliminate the Gladiators 25-10, 25-20, 19-25, 25-18 in this first round match this past Tuesday night. Those moves included moving senior outside hitter Caroline Hefley to the right side and inserting junior libero Allison Sutherlin as the new setter with senior defensive specialist Kaylee Westra now the libero.

“What are the [Los Angeles] Lakers’ thoughts when Kobe [Bryant] goes down,” Nua asked. “It’s kind of the same thing. I know for sure I have to maintain my composure. Our girls…unfortunately some of them feed off of the coach. Tonight wasn’t so bad. Our game plan…we’ll need to change some things up for Thursday.”

Nua admitted she was pretty confident during the entire match but her only worry was her players not having confidence in themselves. That confidence level was immediately squashed in the first set when V.C. (20-3) bolted out to an 11-1 lead, and later 19-3, thanks to eight aces, three net violations and a rotation violation.

“I was devastated and I was really nervous,” Hefley said. “She’s one of my best friends, so I was really nervous for her and her health. I know she’s a big part of the team. I was scared that the leadership was going to lack, but I knew that our team was capable of adding another leader supporting each other and encouraging each other.”

“The first set, we made most of the mistakes,” said Gahr head coach Iris Najera. “The other team did a great job, but they didn’t earn many points. We made a lot of mistakes. Our serve receive broke down and our confidence broke down.”

The second set would be as tight as you could get with no lead greater than three points until V.C. junior middle blocker Madison Huizar blocked a shot to make it 23-19. Both teams would go through stretches of nine, six and again six straight sideouts and there were nine ties. V.C.’s supporting cast of Hefley, senior outside hitter Samantha Yang and freshman outside hitter Madison Holmes were also just getting started and through the first two sets, having combined for 16 kills, five aces and one block.

But Gahr (9-15), which tied for second place in the San Gabriel Valley League, wasn’t ready to go home just yet. It never trailed in the third set and strung together four, four and six consecutive points on three different occasions to build an 18-8 lead. But when Yang pounded down her eighth kill, it gave the serve to Sutherlin, who brought her team within four points after three straight aces, the last right on the back line.

“Our passing was kind of rough at that point and we couldn’t get the easy points,” Hefley said. “But I knew that my team…we’re good servers and good passers and it was just a mental game. We just needed to get through it.”

But with the score 23-19, Gahr finished off the set with kills from junior setter Niahni Moultry and junior middle blocker Tyra Parrish.

“When we are confident and comfortable, we can do really great things,” Najera said. “I think we did the third set. After that, we got overwhelmed. But I’m really happy with our fight. I’m happy with the way we shook off the first set and then we got it together after that.

Then in the fourth set, junior libero Christal Constantino served four straight points to give Gahr an early 5-1 advantage. With Gahr up 9-8, V.C. junior defensive specialist Emily McLurg served five straight points and while Gahr came back to tie the set twice, the hosts wouldn’t fall behind again. Yang made sure of that when she served six in a row to put her team up 22-15.

Hefley led everyone with 16 kills while Yang and Huizar each added 13 and nine kills respectively. Sutherlin led the Lady Crusaders with eight aces while Yang added five aces. This was the first time since 2011 that these two Artesia Blvd. neighbors have faced each other. That was a Gahr five-set win in a Gahr Tournament match.

“My team was really supportive,” Hefley said. “I was kind of nervous going in because my coach said, ‘the pressure is kind of on you. You’re taking the role of the team because obviously [Karly] is a big leader on the team’.”

“I was confident, I was pretty confident in knowing my players and how we play regardless of who we have on the court,” Nua said. “I was just a little more worried about what was going on in their minds and how they were going to rise to the occasion.

“Caroline really stepped up tonight,” Nua added. “She was pretty timid going in, just unaware of her ability. I’ve seen her play, I’ve seen her hit and she’s not the best. But she’s pretty strong. I knew that when we were going in, we would be fine.”

V.C., ranked 10th in the division, traveled to Prep League champion Mayfield on Nov. 13. The Cubs are the sixth ranked team in the division.

Gahr was led by senior outside hitter Destiny Hayes (11 kills, one block), Parrish (10 kills, one block) and sophomore middle blocker Shantelle Marshall (six kills, two blocks). Gahr has not advanced to the second round of the playoffs since 2005.

“What needs to happen in the offseason is we need to get a core group of students together, playing together,” Najera said. “We will be conditioning daily during sixth period and reminding these girls why we condition every day. And so that way, we can win league. That way, we won’t be overwhelmed first round in playoffs and we will be playing with confidence. A lot of things will have happened in this offseason. I’m really excited for this next group of girls coming in and I’m sad to see the nine seniors go.”