Laguna Blanca goes distance to win CIF title

The Laguna Blanca girls volleyball team celebrate their CIF 4AA title. The Owls defeated defending champion Alta Loma in five sets.

The Laguna Blanca girls volleyball team celebrate their CIF 4AA title. The Owls defeated defending champion Alta Loma in five sets.

The dream was realized for the Laguna Blanca girls volleyball team on Saturday.

Senior Phoebe Madsen put away the final point to cap a comeback and give the Owls a dramatic five-set win over Alta Loma for the CIF Division 4AA championship at Cerritos College.

The Owls fought back from a 2-1 deficit in sets against the defending division champions and won by scores of 25-21, 24-26, 23-25, 25-19, 15-11. It’s the second CIF title in program history. The first was in 2006. Jason Donnelly guided both championship teams.

This title comes a year after the Owls were ousted in the first round of the playoffs. The players were on a mission to win it all this year.

“I didn’t have any doubts,” said Madsen in a TV interview. She led the Owls with 17 kills. “I knew we could do it. I knew we had it in ourselves.”

For Madsen and fellow seniors Dani Abrams and Emily Lafitte, the title is a dream come true. They were sophomores on the 2013 team that lost in the final. The seniors were the catalysts behind win over a taller Alta Loma team. Madsen had 23 assists, 13 digs and scored 18 points. Abrams and Lafitte each had 10 kills, with Abrams hitting .348 from the middle. Junior Maddy Nicolson had 12 kills.

The Laguna sophomores played with great poise on the big stage. Setter Kelly Bickett dished out 25 sets, outside hitter Caylin Zimmerman had 15 digs, Kendall White and Sophia Fay each picked up 10 digs.

“Being able to bring home a second title is a wonderful feeling,” said Donnelly. “Anytime you make a CIF Final you know you’ve got a special group. We’ve had a number of great teams at Laguna Blanca and this one ranks right up there at the top. (Assistant coach) Kat (Niksto) and I knew we had physical talent when we got here. The challenge was to get the girls to buy into the mental part and those lessons began in August and happened every day.”

The Owls needed all the heart and guts they could muster to pull out the win. Alta Loma made it difficult to put balls away with their big block of Kylie Szczepanski, Victoria Duarte and Gabrielle Oddo. The Braves recorded five solo blocks and 20 block assists. Laguna Blanca had zero solos and only six block assists.

Alta Loma picked up its play in the second set behind the hitting of Oddo. She finished the match with 26 kills. But Laguna Blanca kept its composure and made some adjustments in its attack. The Owls started setting Madsen inside and she delivered.

Fittingly, she put away the final points in sets four and five.

In the fifth set, Lafitte ripped a ball off the Alta Loma block for an 11-6 lead. But the Braves battled back with a 5-0 run to tie the score at 11-11. A net serve gave the lead back to the Owls.

Sophomore Laurel Kujan stuffed an overpass in the middle and Alta Loma hit a ball long to put Laguna Blanca at match point, 14-11. The Owls got the ball back on a tough Bickett serve and Madsen got the swing for the championship. She hammered the ball off the block to complete the biggest win of her high school career.

“Kelly Bickett put up an amazing set,” she said. “I went up there and swung as hard as I could.”

For Donnelly, there was something extra special about this title.

“For me personally, having my wife and daughter there to celebrate with was truly a great feeling,” he said.