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By Loren Kopff

@LorenKopff on Twitter

Over the past several seasons, the better Suburban League girls volleyball matches have come when Cerritos High, Mayfair High and Norwalk High all play each other. But very few people would expect Norwalk to sweep Cerritos, considering it had not happened in at least the previous 36 meetings.

Norwalk did that, and senior outside hitter Ashley Whittall was a major part of the Lady Lancers 25-10, 25-18, 25-21 victory last Thursday. Whittall went off for 31 kills, six more than the entire Cerritos squad. The win kept Norwalk right at the top of the league as it improved to 10-9 overall and 5-1 in the circuit at the time while Cerritos lost its first league match and Mayfair remained undefeated in league action. This was also the sixth time since 1998 that Norwalk had defeated Cerritos.

“Just getting to know [Ashley] over the practices and all of these games, it’s very hard to put so much trust in a player,” said Norwalk first-year head coach Hector Guevera. “To trust in her and believe that she believes in herself, we’ve noticed that and we see that in Ashley. That’s why we give her that freedom to call what she wants to hit.”

“I was expecting we would come out with intensity but we came out with a lot more than I thought we would,” Whittall said. “We knew it was going to be a big match. We always play up when we’re playing good teams.

“I just knew that this was a big game and I needed to be leading the team in kills and everything,” Whittall later said. “So, I just tried to step it up for everyone.”

After the Lady Dons held a slim 3-2 lead in the first set, Whittall’s second kill gave the serve to senior defensive specialist Mercedes Orozco, where she reeled off five straight points. After Cerritos picked up a point, senior setter Annissa Uncapher served six consecutive points and the Lady Lancers were off and rolling. Whittall had 13 kills in the first set while the team served seven aces.

Norwalk was again off to a fast start in the second set, scoring six straight points early thanks to four aces from junior setter Danielle Gomez. The hosts were up 20-10 before the Lady Dons made a small surge to get back in the set. Sophomore outside hitter Samantha Oh had her fourth kill, then served five points in a row with three aces. But it was too little, too late as a Whittall kill and an Uncapher ace ended the set.

“It took us a while to show up,” said Cerritos head coach David Cuthbert. “Obviously Norwalk played really well today. But I think across the board, we’re really disappointed with how we played.”

What was causing havoc for the Cerritos defense was the unpredictability of Whittall. When the Lady Dons would prepare for her to slam the ball down the middle of the court, or even off to the sides, she would, at times, simply send a soft lollypop-style of a kill into an open area, or a tip at the net.

“A couple of times when she would do that, especially from the back row, Cerritos would back up their defense,” Guevera said. “She notices that and that’s why she does those tips. She’s a very smart player and we see that whenever she goes to hit from the outside, right side, middle; wherever she’s at, if she sees a line open, she’s going to go for it.”

“I don’t think we were confused; we just didn’t execute,” Cuthbert said of Whittall. “We knew exactly how to play and defend her. We just didn’t do it, which is frustrating. She’s a good player and they’re going to be successful if she can play how she wants to play with very little in the way.”

Three more kills from Whittall, an ace from Gomez and a block from junior middle blocker Tais Guzman put Norwalk up 5-0 in the third set. But the Lady Dons quickly responded and tied the set after junior middle blocker Kelly Amalu had just her second kill. Norwalk would open up leads of three and two points respectively, only to see Cerritos come back to tie.

But with the score knotted at 10-10, Whittall had the first of four kills as part of a rally that put the Lady Lancers up 16-10.

Again, Cerritos refused to go away, getting to within two points twice. In the end, it was too much Whittall and too much of Norwalk’s serving, which had 21 aces.

“We emphasized that a lot during preseason and going into [league] because that was one of the things where we were becoming inconsistent in,” Guevera said of his team’s serving. “We wanted to drill that into our players’ heads.”

“We weren’t engaging,” Cuthbert said. “Volleyball is a team sport filled with one on one matchups; blocker against hitter, server against passer. And we weren’t engaging in the individual matches. We were just letting things happen. We looked a little vacant, we weren’t together, and we weren’t loud. All the things we expect our team to be, we just weren’t.”

Whittall wasn’t the only one providing all of the points as senior outside hitter Valerie Ortega pitched in with half a dozen kills while Guzman and senior libero Paola Nava each had a pair of kills.

“She didn’t play too much last year but this year, after playing a year of club [volleyball], she really has stepped it up and became a well-rounded player,” Whittall said of Ortega.

Norwalk began the second round of league action with a 25-13, 25-19, 25-11 sweep at Bellflower High this past Tuesday, the team’s eighth non-tournament sweep in 2016. The Lady Lancers, which travelled to La Mirada High on Oct. 6, will visit John Glenn High on Tuesday before taking a week off in preparation for their rematch with Mayfair, a home encounter on Oct. 18.

“Our mentality right now is no matter who the team is, whether we’ve beaten them or not, we’re still going to bring a great game for them,” Guevera said. “We’re going to keep pushing and we’re going to get that ‘W’, no matter who it is, no matter who is on the front row or back row or who we’re going up against.”

“I know Mayfair is going to be another struggle again the next time we play them,” Whittall said. “But I’m pretty sure if we play how we played today, we can beat them or be really close with them.”

Oh led Cerritos with six kills and six aces while Amalu added another five. The Lady Dons would get back to their winning ways with a 25-4, 25-16, 25-4 win over Glenn this past Tuesday to improve to 10-2 overall and 5-1 in league action. They hosted Mayfair on Oct. 6 and will be home to Artesia High on Tuesday before going to Mayfair on Wednesday to make up a match that was postponed from Sept. 13. The next day, Cerritos will visit Bellflower.

“I think all of the games should be competitive,” Cuthbert said. “Obviously from the results from the first round, Mayfair has the advantage and we’re third in the pile. I think we can play far better than that. I think we match up well when we do things we’re supposed to do.”