History-making Owls ready for first state final

Laguna Blanca's Maddy Nicolson has been a clutch hitter during the postseason. (John Dvorak/Presidio Sports Photos)

Laguna Blanca’s Maddy Nicolson has been a clutch hitter during the postseason. (John Dvorak/Presidio Sports Photos)

They’ve been practicing since mid-August, yet there are no signs of the Laguna Blanca girls volleyball team slowing down.

The Owls are the first local high school team to be playing in December. On Saturday, they’ll try to become the area’s first state volleyball champion as they take on Notre Dame Belmont in the CIF Division 4 State Championship match at Santiago Canyon College in Orange. First serve is scheduled at 12:30 p.m. The match is being live streamed on www.twcsportschannel.com

Both teams were top-seeded in their respective regionals. Laguna Blanca (26-7) captured the CIF Southern Regional title with a four-set win over Desert of Edwards Air Force Base while Notre Dame (31-10) advanced with a four-set win over Marin Catholic in the Northern California Regional final.

Notre Dame plays in the highly competitive West Catholic League in the Central Coast Section. The league includes perennial power Archbishop Mitty Bishop (which is playing in the Division 2 final and is seeking its sixth state title since 2003), San Jose Valley Christian, San Jose Presentation and Sacred Heart Cathedral. Every team in the league had a winning record this season and four teams won 30 matches. The Tigers took a set off Mitty this season and finished tied for third in the league.

Like Laguna Blanca, Notre Dame has a talented group of underclassmen, led by 6-1 junior outside hitter Katie Smoot. She had 25 kills in the regional final and 24 in the CIF-CCS Division 4 championship match win over Menlo. The Lancers also have 6-1 and 5-11 middles and a 5-11 opposite.

“Belmont is very talented, with a highly recruited 6-1 outside hiiter,” said Laguna coach Jason Donnelly. “I’ve had the chance to watch them on film, and we will be prepared.”

It doesn’t seem to matter what the Owls are up against when they take the court.  They are a composed, cohesive group that is battle tested. They played against large Orange County schools in a tournament and took sets off Channel League teams Dos Pueblos and Santa Barbara this season. In the CIF-Southern Section Division 4AA title match against Alta Loma, they regrouped after losing sets 2 and 3, won the fourth set handily and took the fifth. In the regional final, they took down a Desert team that had pair of future Division 1 players in four sets.

“Our kids are just really competitive; they’re not afraid,”  Donnelly said after the regional final. “They might have been afraid at the beginning of the year, but they understand what it means to compete now. It doesn’t really matter who is on the other side of the net; it doesn’t matter we have 150 kids in our school and we’re beating schools like Alta Loma that have 2800 kids. Our kids just don’t care, they just want to play. They like playing with each other and are not afraid to go out there and compete, and it’s paying off for them.”

Donnelly said team chemistry has been a key part to its success.

“This group of kids is really close. They genuinely care about each other,” he said. “They want to keep practicing. It’s not like this time of the year when some teams are dragging and it’s hard to keep focus. I almost had to shut it down so they can rest and do some homework.”

He added: “These girls have given us everything this season and we’re confident we have one more left.”