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GIRLS VOLLEYBALL – Norwalk squanders numerous chances as Gahr rallies to win five-set thriller

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

The success of the Gahr High girls volleyball team may lie in its experience of playing deep in its matches. After beginning the season with four straight three-set matches, losing three of them, the Gladiators have now played in consecutive five-set contests in a matter of 72 hours, winning both.

That may seem to make a team a bit tired, but Gahr shook off the cobwebs of the first two sets against Suburban Valley Conference foe Norwalk High and knocked off Lancers 21-25, 22-25, 25-14, 25-21, 15-13 last Thursday on the road. Gahr head coach Charity Dennis said she needed to go back and look at the film, and that her team needs to live point for point and see where the match could have ended earlier. In any event, she said playing 10 sets in three days should not male them tired.

“They shouldn’t be,” she continued. “They need to learn to handle them in the beginning. I think there were a lot of points we gave away in set one and set two that were easy balls we could have taken care of. We weren’t trusting ourselves; we weren’t communicating. But we turned it around in sets three, four and five.”

“I just think we got comfortable,” said Norwalk head coach Paola Nava. “We were up 2-0 and the girls thought they had it in the bag and that’s not the case. Gahr came back and they wanted it more than we did. It sucks, but they had to play, and they fought hard. We were up 13-11 in the fifth set and we couldn’t finish it, unfortunately.

“It’s definitely a learning lesson for the girls and our team and I think it’s just going to make them a lot hungrier,” she continued. “They’re going to want it a lot more.”

Gahr had leads of 4-0, 13-7 and 17-13 in the first set thanks to the hitting of senior opposite hitter Simone Johnson and senior outside hitter Leslie Solorzano, each of whom had three kills. But a serve into the net allowed Norwalk senior libero Tatianna Navarro to reel off four straight points, three of them aces to make the score 13-12. 

The Lancers didn’t take their first lead until an ace from junior outside hitter Kendall Nakano made it 18-17. It was part of six straight points that gave the hosts that burst of energy. Junior outside hitter Marisol Roseboro ended the set with three straight aces, the last which barely grazed the top of the net.

“We started playing with hesitancy,” said Dennis. “It comes with maturity. We started to look for other people to play the ball for them.”

Through the first rotation of the second set, there would be five ties and no lead greater than three points. But a pair of aces from junior setter Alyssa Dorado enabled Norwalk to take a 15-9 lead at the beginning of the second rotation. Gahr tried to get back in the set and when Johnson served consecutive aces, it was an 18-15 contest. But sophomore middle blocker Samantha Munoz had a pair of blocks in the end and the Lancers (2-4) were one set away from their second straight sweep. 

“They underestimate themselves,” said Nava. “They look at [the opponent] during the warmup and I think they kind of get intimidated. I tell them, ‘you know what, I think you girls just need to go out and play and don’t worry about what they’re doing; worry about what you’re doing’. They kind of worried too much about the other side instead of worrying about themselves. They weren’t communicating at the beginning of the game. So, I think that really was a factor of how we started off.”

Gahr roared to a 7-3 lead in the third set before Norwalk got to within two points at 8-6. After that, a serving error allowed junior outside hitter Leilani Choe to serve four straight points and pretty much put the set away. Johnson and senior middle blocker Lyric Okaro combined for a block to begin the second rotation and Solorzano added two more kills to push the lead to 21-10.

“I talked to them about being aggressive,” said Dennis. “We started to play small when things weren’t going our way. We started to play conservative. They were expecting things to be given to them. Nothing is going to be given. They have to earn each point and I think they had a mental shift at that point. They went out there and started earning points.”

No one wanted to take control of the fourth set as there were seven ties through the first rotation, which ended at 11-11, and another eight ties by the time the second rotation had ended. By now, it was 20-20 with the lead changing hands seven times and neither team holding more than a two-point advantage. Gahr had 10 kills and five aces while Norwalk had seven kills and five aces by the time it was 20-20.

But Solorzano’s 16th kill put Gahr up 21-20 and an ace from junior setter Cassie Zoellers prompted Nava to call a timeout. The set ended with Johnson recording a block.

“When we have a lead, we need to keep the lead and utilize the lead,” said Dennis. “I think we get comfortable going neck and neck. But you learn how to push.”

“It was definitely very tight,” said Nava. “I think it kind of put our girls in a position where it was pressure on them, then it was pressure on us, then pressure on them and pressure on us. They had never been in that situation before. I just told them to play one ball at a time and do what you know how to do and that’s it.”

Gahr started the fifth set almost the same way it did to begin the match, scoring four straight points to make it 7-3 as Johnson added another block in that sequence. But just like that, a kill from Roseboro and three straight aces from Munoz tied the set. An ace from Roseboro put Norwalk in front for the first time in the set at 10-9 and moments later, an ace from Navarro that again grazed the top of the net put the Lancers two points away from victory.

But Dennis called a timeout and her players responded as Solorzano had her match-high 18th kill, followed by an ace, Johnson’s 14th kill and another ace.

“We had three service errors in the fifth set,” said Dennis. “It was just a lack of mental focus. They weren’t focusing in on the little things. [There were] free balls all over the place, service errors all over the place. We weren’t winding up on defense. As soon as they started to focus in on the little things, that’s what gave us the advantage.”

“There are definitely moments where my girls realize that [they] want this,” said Nava. “But at the same time, they get buried into their heads; they get comfortable, and they don’t realize that they need to continue playing the way they’ve been playing. When they want it, they show it.”

Gahr improved to 3-3 but it’s clear that the offensive attack of Johnson and Solorzano, along with junior middle blocker Zyon Aubrey and Zoellers, who combined for 11 kills, should keep the team competitive with Downey High, Mayfair High and Warren High in the Gateway League of the new conference.

“Simone started swinging more aggressively,” said Dennis. “I know she gets hesitant at the net when she makes an error. But today, she stepped up and was mentally tough. She swung at a lot of things that she normally doesn’t swing at. Leslie was a smart player today. She’s using a lot of what she took from the beach. She scores a lot of points indoors, but she found a lot of open court and did a good job today.”

The Gladiators visited Kennedy High on Sept. 7 to wrap up a four-match road trip in a week and will begin league play on Thursday against Downey. As for the Lancers, Roseboro led the way with 13 kills and six aces while Nakano added nine kills and five aces with Munoz and Navarro combining for another 11 aces and 10 kills.

“Marisol is definitely somebody that kind of shocked us at tryouts,” said Nava. “Coming from j.v., they’re hungry and they want to play on varsity. She’s improved so much since the beginning of the season and I can’t wait to see where she’s at, at the end of the season.

“These girls are real young; I only have four seniors on the team, and a lot of my team are players from the [junior varsity] and freshmen team last year,” Nava later said. “I think the communication is still a work in progress. They’re still learning how to help each other out on the court; have each other’s back on the court. Right now, they’re still timid with each other, which is okay. After today, they definitely realized that [communication] is important.”

Norwalk, which should be the favorites to win the Mid-Cities League of the conference, hosted John Glenn High on Sept. 8 and will participate in the Whittier Tournament to end the non-league portion of its schedule. The Lancers, who have won 15 of the last 16 meetings with former Suburban League rival Glenn, will then host La Mirada High on Tuesday before going to Firebaugh High on Thursday.

“I think it will be a fun match,” said Nava. “Every time we play Glenn, they always compete with us, and we always compete with them. They always give us a run for our money. I think our girls shouldn’t underestimate them.”