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GATEWAY LEAGUE GIRLS VOLLEYBALL – La Mirada, with tandem of Meraz and Ojeisekhoba, outlasts Gahr in league opener

September 13, 2023

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

One of the perks for any athletic team winning a Mid-Cities League title is that you are nearly certain to move to the more competitive Gateway League the following season. The La Mirada High girls volleyball team went 10-0 last season in the Mid-Cities League, the program’s first league championship since 2014 and as a result, got bumped up for this season.

In the Gateway League opener this past Tuesday, the Matadores did not lose a beat in their new circuit, posting a 25-19, 25-27, 20-25, 25-21, 15-9 victory over an improved Gahr High squad. While it wasn’t the prettiest of victories, it was enough to improve La Mirada’s mark to 11-5 overall, 1-0 in league.

“I knew it was going to be hard,” said La Mirada head coach Kimberly Mahan. “Obviously, we’re in a tougher league. I knew Gahr’s defense is good; they pick up balls and they don’t give up. They have a lot of heart and I think that’s where we, at the beginning, started off strong and then we kind of went down because I think the girls thought, ‘okay, we have this’. [Gahr] wanted it more than us.”

Gahr was up 3-0 in the fifth set as senior setter Cassandra Zoellers served an ace, followed by kills from sophomore middle blocker Jessalyn Ecevedo and junior opposite hitter Kyla Jones. La Mirada responded with four straight points, including an ace from junior defensive specialist Angelyna Conde, her seventh of the match. There would be two more lead changes moments later, but the Matadores would take the lead for good at 8-7 on senior defensive specialist Emilie Galvan’s first kill. The match ended with senior outside hitter Alyssa Meraz serving the final five points.

“Serve receive; we didn’t trust our teammates,” said Gahr head coach Charity Dennis. “We just gave up on serve receive and it made a difference. It was hesitations. There wasn’t a lot of movement. In practice yesterday, we were moving well, then we felt a lot of pressure today for some reason. There was a failure to move, failure to get our angles, failure to stay disciplined and low on serve receive and it ended up making a difference.”

“I think it was our serving,” said Mahan. “We must have had a lot of serves at the end where they weren’t really passing. It was hard for setter to get the second ball. They have a great libero, so their libero tipped a lot of our balls.”

The theme of the match would be serve receive for both teams, allowing for the momentum swings which made it possible for it to go five sets. Through the first rotation of the opening set, there were eight ties and three lead changes. That would change to begin the second rotation as La Mirada junior middle blocker Natalie Ojeisekhoba was beginning her big day with a kill to tie the set at 11-11. That paved the way for Conde to serve five straight points, the first two coming off Meraz kills and a pair of aces from Conde. 

The margin increased to seven points at 21-14 as the Gladiators were unable to put together more than two straight points at any time in the set, which ended on an ace from senior outside hitter Natalie Peter, the seventh by the Matadores to that point.

“I know we had five missed serves in the first set, so that kills us,” said Mahan. “Angelyna Conde has a strong serve, so I think we do well in that rotation, and she does a good job on defense. We still won, but like I said, our energy went down, and we weren’t as excited as them.”

La Mirada jumped out to a 7-1 lead in the second set and had a six-point advantage four other times before Gahr began to rally during the second rotation. After La Mirada junior outside hitter Geraldine Aiono’s kill put her team up 20-17, a serving error gave Gahr possession, and junior defensive specialist Layla Garcia served five straight points. 

The Matadores had two opportunities to go up two sets, but Gahr responded both times, got the serve back following a kill from senior outside hitter Leilani Choe, who then had an ace and received a Jones kill for the match equalizer.

It was all Gahr in the third set, which never trailed, building leads of 12-6, 17-9 and 20-11. But in the fourth set, there were seven ties and seven lead changes all within the first rotation. The last of those lead changes came by virtue of Aiono’s fourth kill and made it 9-8. The lead grew to 16-11 after Conde’s fifth ace and Ojeisekhoba ended La Mirada’s scoring with three kills amongst its last four points. She would have 17 kills and two blocks while Meraz led everyone with 23 kills.

“Natalie is amazing,” said Mahan. “She usually goes up and pounds that ball. It was harder to run the middles and that’s where we struggled, because I have two string middles and it starts with the pass. So, Alyssa does do a lot. She had shoulder surgery in March, so she’s coming back from that.”

“It was just a failure to make changes in that fourth set,” said Dennis. “We started strong, and we were playing together as a team, and then they went on a run. Their energy went up; La Mirada’s energy went up. They were playing tough, and we started to shut down.”

Conde, along with senior defensive specialist Margaret Norton had 20 digs and junior setter Kiersten Mahan, who had 41 sets, pitched in with 15 digs.

“Every single game we play, we’re up always five or six points and we let [the opponent] back,” said Kimberly Mahan. “And it is our serve receive [and] our passing. These girls don’t know to stay low [and] pass. They want to pop up; their shoulders are high and it’s hard to teach.”

Gahr was paced by Jones (16 kills, five aces), Choe (12 kills, four aces) and senior outside hitter Isabela Torres (seven kills, one ace). Zoellers and junior setter Minerva Rodriguez each had four aces as the Gladiators (9-5, 0-1) are proving that last season’s 10-14 record was a fluke. They also had their worst league record (1-7) in over two and a half decades.

“Kyla is coming off an injury, so today, she played really aggressively,” said Dennis. “We’re still trying to get her back to full health. But at the same time, she’s a leader. She’s a young leader on the team.

“No excuses for [losing to] La Mirada, but they are ready to fight and they’re ready to win,” she later said. “Last year was a very difficult season and we’re ready to turn it around this year.”

Gahr will face Maywood Center for Enriched Studies, Sonora High and Peninsula High on Friday in pool play action of the Gahr/Bellflower Tournament, which concludes on Saturday. The Gladiators will then host Warren High on Tuesday before travelling to Paramount High on Thursday.

“We’re going to turn it around,” chuckled Dennis. “This won’t happen again.”

The Matadores will host Downey High (11-7, 1-0) on Tuesday before going to Warren on Thursday.

“I think we’re going to see a lot of tough competition,” said Mahan. “It’s going to be exciting, but we have to be on our ‘A’ game. We cannot let up and we have to make sure we’re passing strong and [making good decisions]. That’s where we struggled today. Our volleyball IQ…we’re still learning.”