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CIF-SOUTHERN SECTION DIVISION 4 GIRLS VOLLEYBALL PLAYOFFS: Underdog Valley Christian fights through to knock off Saddleback Valley Christian

By Loren Kopff  • @LorenKopff on Twitter 

The last time any Valley Christian High girls volleyball team has advanced to the CIF-Southern Section divisional championship match, head coach Jeff Ornee was seven years old. In fact, the program had not reached the quarterfinals in the past 11 seasons, until now. 

Backed by dominating performances from junior middle blockers Rachel Gonzales and Dakota Quinlan, V.C. is heading back to the title game for the first time since 1998 following a 25-21, 25-18, 19-25, 25-18 victory over Saddleback Valley Christian High last Saturday. The Lady Defenders, who are the sixth-ranked team in Division 4, improved to 24-8 and will face top-seeded Norco High Saturday morning at Cerritos College. The 24 victories are the most since 1998 when that team, known as the Lady Crusaders, went 33-0 and was the USA Today National Champions. 

“It’s big,” Ornee said. “These girls weren’t alive then, so it’s been a long time. That was a great team back in 1998. They won that USA Today National Championship. It was a big deal. I was a kid at that time and probably came to a couple of matches. But I don’t remember a whole lot about that team. But it is a big deal for this program to get back there. 

“But the message is, all the attention we’re getting, all the hype we’re getting, all the good jobs we’re getting, the job is not done,” he added. “And, you don’t remember teams that get to the finals. You remember teams that win the finals, and my message to the team is we’ve come this way, don’t let it be for nothing and keep pushing all the way to the end.” 

“Tonight, we were going in thinking we could possibly be the underdogs again because one, we played Saddleback last year and we took them to five sets,” Gonzales said. “The first set we got completely swept (25-10) and we were really mad about that. But we took it into our own hands and decided to push all that negative energy towards positiveness and push through it and fight for each other.” 

The Lady Defenders and Warriors played a tight first set through most of the first rotation until senior libero Mia DeKraker served back to back aces to extend her team’s lead to 11-5. V.C. led by as many as nine points before the San Joaquin League co-champions crept to within three points at 22-19 after Lane Csimma had a pair of aces. But a serve into the net and an ace from senior opposite hitter Megan Bouma virtually iced the set. 

Junior outside hitter Ashlyn Couch would have a big second set, recording her first three kills early to make the score 4-1, then 5-4. Later, her fourth kill extended the lead to 15-10 and her sixth kill made ended a stretch of six straight points to move the lead to 22-15. In fact, the Warriors had not led through the first wo sets and had forced only two ties.  

“I think the fight that we had tonight was really key to our success,” Gonzales said. “Even though there were ups and downs, we were yelling at each other. But then we noticed that we can’t yell at each other and become a team. We had to keep fighting for each other.” 

V.C. got out to another strong start in the third set. But unlike the first two, S.V.C. got hold of a lead early and was in front for the first time at 8-7 after an ace from Gabby Park. The Warriors would trail just once the remainder of the set, which came when Gonzales had her 13th kill, ending a five-point scoring spree by the hosts. But four straight points from the 10th ranked team in the division pretty much sealed the deal in the set. In fact, Quinlan, who has been one of V.C.’s hottest hitters the second half of the season, was limited to two kills in the set. She would rebound in the fourth set and finished the match with 15 kills. 

“Obviously coming over to a new school with a new setter, there’s going to be a building process; a connection that needs to be formed,” Ornee said. “[Junior setter] Rachel [Lim] and Dakota have been working all year long trying to build that connection between setter and hitter. And, it’s still not perfect. We’re still going to work on it next week before the finals.” 

“She’s a big asset to our team, one with blocking,” Gonzales said of Quinlan. “Our blocking is…it’s like a monster block with her. It’s tremendous. She’s up there, she’s pushing over. Everything is all good. With her hitting in the middle, they’re not expecting it. She’s quick, she’s smart, she knows where to place the ball. And, she’s also good covering tips and roll shots. She’s an overall great player.” 

V.C. made sure there the Warriors would not carry that momentum into the fourth set as Bouma served three straight aces to give her team an early 4-1 lead. Then Quinlan’s 12th kill was the beginning of seven consecutive points as V.C. raced to an 11-2 advantage. Couch had consecutive aces in that rally.  

Even when S.V.C. got to within four points at 17-13, kills from Gonzales and Quinlan, followed by a block from Gonzales made it a 20-13 lead. Lim would serve the final two points of the match.  

Gonzales led the Lady Defenders with 18 kills while Couch and Bouma had eight and seven kills respectively. Gonzales also had 19 digs followed by Lim (15), Couch (14) and DeKraker (seven). Lim also had 40 assists. 

“I said right after game three, this can’t go five,” Ornee said. “Even though we have a great record in five-set matches this season, we can’t go to five, losing two games in a row with the momentum being so far out of our hands at that point. So, we had to set the tone early in game four.” 

V.C. will have its hands full with the Cougars, who enter the championship match sporting a 22-1 record and have lost nine sets all season long. Norco, the champions of the Big VIII League, began the season with five straight sweeps before falling to Ontario Christian High, last season’s Division 5 champions, on Aug. 29. Norco has swept five of its last seven opponents and has played in just one five-set match. V.C., on the other hand, has gone the distance five times, all coming within the last eight matches. 

“I don’t know a ton about Norco,” Ornee said. “I know they’re the number one seed overall in the bracket, so I’m expecting a great team. We’ll do my scouting; we’ll do my report and we’ll see what we have on them. But I’m expecting a battle.” 

“We’re no longer the Crusaders, so let’s get this title as Defenders,” Gonzales said. “Let’s have our names on the board {inside the gymnasium) forever. Let’s make a change in Valley Christian history as a new set of group of girls, a new team, new coaching staff…everything new.