It was the fifth set in the match to determine who goes to the CIF volleyball final.
So how did the Laguna Blanca girls volleyball team handle the pressure?
The fourth-seeded Owls scored nine straight points on Emily Lafitte’s serve and fellow senior Phoebe Madsen hammered the final point to defeat L.A. Archer, sending them to the Division 4AA championship match. The semifinal scores were 25-13, 25-19, 24-26, 23-25, 15-3.
Laguna Blanca will play second-seeded Alta Loma for the title at Cerritos College on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. Alta Loma defeated St. Bonaventure in four sets in the other semifinal.
“We’ve been preparing for this for a long time,” said coach Jason Donnelly, who will be making his sixth trip to the CIF finals with Laguna Blanca. He guided the Owls to the title in 2006 before leaving for an assistant coaching job at Rutgers and later a coaching and teaching position at Bishop Diego. He returned to Laguna Blanca this year to be the school’s athletic director and girls volleyball coach. “Ever since I took the job and when my boys season ended at Bishop, we really started thinking about getting to this match.”
Donnelly couldn’t have been prouder of his team’s performance against a tough opponent. Archer swept top-seeded La Reina in the quarterfinals and fought back from a 2-0 deficit at Merovick Gym behind the hitting of Christian Luhnow and some good defensive play.
“That team wasn’t going to quit,” Donnelly said. “That team played unbelievably well. The real key to the match was us being down 23-20 in fourth game and I call timeout. I say, ‘Hey, let’s try to get a little momentum back,’ and then the next thing you know we’re right there. Even though we lost that game we stole momentum back.”
The Owls then put the Panthers away with a dominating performance in the fifth set.
“We just played beautifully. The fifth game we almost played perfect,” said Donnelly.
The seniors led the way for the Owls. Lafitte led the team with 19 kills and four service aces. Madsen played a terrific all-around match with 12 kills on a .420 hitting percentage, 29 assists, 16 digs and four aces. Kelly Bickett had 33 assists and Sophie Fay picked up 24 digs.
Lafitte was on fire hitting the ball in the first two sets, and the Owls looked like they were going to breeze through the match.
“It was her best match of the year, especially the first two games,” Donnelly said of the senior outside hitter. “She was consistent on offense, making kills and serving well.”
Said Lafitte on her play: “This could have been my last game, so I felt I just had to lay it all out there and give it everything I got for every point.”
While Laguna dominated the first two sets, Donnelly knew Archer would battle back.
“I told them in practice I didn’t expect it to be a sweep. Don’t be surprised if we’re in a match,” he said.
Sure enough, the Panthers kept the third set close, and Luhnow made a couple of clutch plays down the stretch to avoid the sweep. The Lafayette-bound outside hitter finished with 19 kills.
In the fourth set, Archer’s Macoy Olbaum went on a seven-point serving run to open up a 19-13 lead. The Panthers were ahead 23-20 when Donnelly called a timeout to regroup. Laguna Blanca responded as Caylin Zimmerman put away a couple of sets and Archer committed a violation, cutting the deficit to 24-23. The Panthers won the set on an Owls hitting error, but the momentum of the match had definitely changed.
“We were able to keep everybody involved offensively,” Donnelly said. “They made some good plays on their side, but when push came to shove we had more offensive options. No. 3 is a good player. We started serving her a lot of balls to wear her out a little bit, and that sort of played in our hands in the fifth game. They started her in the back row and we made a run and they couldn’t get her the ball.”
On the Laguna side, Bickett made sure Madsen got the ball for the final kill. Madsen, Lafitte and Dani Abrams were sophomores when the Owls last played for a CIF championship in 2013.
“We wanted Phoebe to take a big swing and end it for us,” Donnelly said. “She deserves it. She cares so much and it means so much to her.”
“I really wanted that ball,” Madsen said. “Kelly put up a perfect set; it was dream come true.
“When we came back after game four, we really just took a deep breath, looked at each other and we knew that we didn’t want this to be our last game,” Madsen added. “The three seniors told each other, ‘This is not going to be our last game.'”
Donnelly noted that coaching this group of players has been really special because of how much they care for each other and have fun.
“No matter how you draw it up it’s just a game with their friends and people they care about,” he said. “What more can you ask for? I’m envious of them. They’re playing at a high level and having fun with their friends.”