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Gateway League Girls Volleyball La Mirada, Ojeisekhoba Bounce Back From Slow Start, Turn Up Energy In Defeating Gahr

October 4, 2023

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

It was a Gateway League tilt between CIF-Southern Section Division 6 rivals when No. 5 La Mirada High went to No. 6 Gahr High last Thursday as the second round of league play began. While La Mirada was comfortably sitting in second place, the Gladiators were hoping to get back into the win column to stay close to the upper half of the circuit.

Gahr began the match with the energy needed to win, leading by nine points in the first rotation, then later by 11 points to ease towards the opening set win. But the Matadores flipped the light switch, and the next three sets were completely different as the visitors pulled off a 16-25, 25-11, 25-12, 25-11 victory. The win pushed La Mirada’s mark to 17-8 overall, 4-1 in league at the time.

“I don’t know, I think maybe the vibe of the gym,” said La Mirada head coach Kimberly Mahan. “It’s like super dark in here [and] it’s pretty hot. We came in super flat and not ready to play, almost like we were scared. And I told them that in this round, Gahr was going to be coming for us. We have to play hard, and we have to keep our momentum up. The first game was not a good game. They served us off the court.”

Gahr junior libero Minerva Rodriguez served five straight points, including a pair of aces, to hold a 7-2 lead and the Gladiators never looked back. An ace from junior opposite hitter Kyla Jones made it 12-3, then later in the set, senior setter Cassandra Zoellers had consecutive aces and a kill from senior outside hitter Mariah Robinson made it 20-9.

Whatever Mahan said between the first and second sets seemed to work as it was La Mirada that raced to leads of 6-2, 9-3 and 15-4 and the defending Mid-Cities League champions maintained that momentum the remainder of the match. Not only did the Matadores struggle in the opening set, so did big hitter junior middle blocker Natalie Ojeisekhoba. She had one kill in the first set but would collect five in the second. 

“I told them we need to come out and start serving hard because they were not serving hard to take them out of serve receive,” said Mahan. “We needed to throw them out of rotation. And then I was telling my hitters, ‘we need to kill the ball, we cannot play safe and just do these little tips’.”

“It’s been a trend with this team this season where we’ll come out really strong and do everything right and then it’s almost like a curse where we kind of take our foot off the gas pedal and the other team starts to gain some momentum and things kind of go downhill from there,” said Gahr assistant coach Alex Quan-Madrid.

Gahr was still within string range in the second set, trailing 15-10 before La Mirada senior outside hitter Alyssa Meraz had a kill before senior opposite hitter Natalie Peter began the second rotation by serving an ace, followed by consecutive kills from Ojeisekhoba and another ace from Peter. Junior defensive specialist Angelyna Conde served the final three points, including an ace.

The Matadores led 5-1 to begin the third set, but Gahr (14-10, 1-4) bounced right back and trailed 6-5 after Rodriguez had consecutive aces. Then with the score 13-9, a service error put the ball in the hands of Peter, where she three straight aces. After three straight kills, another ace from Peter made it 21-9. Peter ended the match with 10 aces and three kills.

“Natalie Peter has been amazing for us [with] her serving and she puts up a big block.” said Mahan. “She doesn’t get to hit as much, but her serving is amazing. She has a lot of aces on our team and she’s very consistent. She doesn’t make very many errors.”

Peter served to begin the fourth set and of the six straight points La Mirada gained, she had two more aces while Ojeisekhoba added three more kills. With the score 15-7 after the first rotation, Ojeisekhoba began the second rotation with back to back kills, then an ace from Peter.

 ‘The energy was really off in the first set and their energy was really, really high,” said Ojeisekhoba. “So, we were all talking out and we came to the conclusion that we should get our energy up, and it just went up from there.

“[Our coach] just said to keep our energy up and I took that and I brought the energy up,” she later added. “I really just wanted to step it up with myself too, and bring the team up, too.”

“I think that’s always going to be a factor in games like this; in matchups like this,” said Quan-Madrid. “But I feel like this team in general, there’s something with our mental preparation for the game where I think we need to assess how to stay focused.”

Jones paced the Gladiators with 15 kills and four aces but had four kills in the second and third sets combined. Robinson added seven kills while senior outside hitter Isabela Torres chipped in with five kills. After getting 15 kills in the opening set, Gahr combined for 20 kills the rest of the match.

“She definitely has a certain fearlessness that she plays with that brings that energy to the team,” said Quan-Madrid of Jones. “She plays hard from the first point to the last point. As a coach, what more could you ask for?”

“It’s hard because she’s a lefty,” said Mahan. “She’s a great player; an all-around great player. She picks up all the balls and she’s a hard hitter. And we don’t see that many lefties, so it kind of is hard. Your defense has to read her arm and her shoulder, and she hits it down the line. She’s a smart hitter.”

Ojeisekhoba, one of the best players in the league, had a match-high 19 kills while Meraz had 11 kills and three aces, junior middle blocker Maleah Diaz seven kills and junior setter Kiersten Mahan five kills and two aces. The Matadores collected 49 kills and 21 aces. This match was different from the first meeting on Sept. 12, which was the league opener. In that contest, La Mirada had to win the final two sets to pick up a five-set victory.

“I think we played harder today,” said Mahan. “We’ve been working a lot on serve receive, which is what hurt us a lot in the first time we played them, and our defense covering. I think we did a lot better covering today and hitting the ball hard.”

“I think [Ojeisekhoba] did a great job,” said Quan-Madrid. “She had a really nice hit at point and then tipped everyone after that. What can we do? We were expecting that big hit again and then she just knew that she had us on her heels. Give her credit where credit is due.”

Gahr, which swept Downey High two days after losing to La Mirada in the first round, hosted the Vikings this past Tuesday and rallied for an 18-25, 20-25, 25-14, 29-27, 15-12 win, then went 3-1 in the Gabrielino Tournament last Saturday to improve to 18-10 overall, 2-4 in league. The win allowed Gahr to tie Downey for third place in the standings as the Gladiators went to league-leading Warren High on Oct. 5 and will host last place Paramount High on Tuesday to conclude the regular season. 

“We have less paths to the playoffs, but we definitely have some options available to us,” said Quan-Madrid. “We’re trying to keep all options open and still trying to play hard. I think we still have a pretty good shot of taking third place in league, so that’s what we’re aiming for. If we end up as an at-large, we’ll just take care of that one game at a time.” 

La Mirada, which was off this past Tuesday, went to Downey on Oct. 5 and will host Warren on Tuesday before going to Paramount on Thursday.

“I knew [the Gateway League] was going to be more competitive,” said Mahan. “Last year, we did very well, and I was hoping we would still do very well. I’ve been telling them the whole time we needed to be ready because it was going to be hard. We played beach volleyball this [past] summer to try to get ready and we’ve just been working very hard. It is everything I thought it was going to be.”