Owls at their best in regional final, advance to state championship

Laurel Kujan of Laguna Blanca hits against the big block of Desert's Devyn Cross.

Laurel Kujan of Laguna Blanca hits against the big block of Desert’s Elizabeth Shelton. (John Dvorak/Presidio Sports photos)

Whether it’s in a tense situation, going against Division 1-bound hitters or playing in a match with a championship on the line, the Laguna Blanca girls volleyball team doesn’t get rattled.

These battle-tested Owls just play better.

They were at their best Tuesday night in beating Desert of Edwards Air Force Base in four sets to the win the CIF State Division 4 Southern Regional Championship and advance to the State Final on Saturday.

Led by a balanced hitting attack and terrific defense, top-seeded Laguna Blanca won 25-11, 25-15, 16-25, 25-19 at Westmont College’s Murchison Gym. The CIF-Southern Section Division 4AA champions will play Belmont-Notre Dame, the No. 1 seed from the Northern Regional, for the State Division 4 title at Santiago Canyon College in Orange at 12:30 p.m.

This marks the first time a prep volleyball team from Santa Barbara is playing for a state championship.

“It’s so surreal,” said senior captain Phoebe Madsen. “It’s like the best feeling ever. There’s no other group of girls I want to be here with.”

Said sophomore Caylin Zimmerman: “It’s an amazing feeling. We’re making history not only in Santa Barbara but at Laguna. I’m so excited. I can’t wait for the State Finals.”

Madsen recorded a triple-double with 14 kills, 16 digs and 32 assists. And, as has been customary during the postseason, she put away the final point of the match.

Three other Owls finished in double figures for kills and two recorded double-doubles. Senior Emily Lafitte posted a team-high 16 kills and had 22 digs, while Zimmerman put away 14 kills and picked up 13 digs. Junior Maddy Nicholson blasted 12 kills.

Laguna Blanca's Phoebe Madsen, left, Laurel Kujan and Caylin Zimmerman block against Desert's Devyn Cross

Laguna Blanca’s Phoebe Madsen, left, Laurel Kujan and Caylin Zimmerman block against Desert’s Devyn Cross.

Desert, the CIF-Southern Section Division 4A champion, was led by its two University of Arizona-bound stars, 6-1 Devyn Cross and 6-2 Elizabeth Shelton. Cross pounded 18 kills, had 18 digs and 9 blocks, while Shelton put away 16 kills, scooped 21 digs and notched six blocks.

The Desert standouts, however, had to work hard for their kills as Laguna Blanca made them scramble with tough serving, got touches on several hits and lined them up for big digs. Led by Lafitte’s four aces and Kelly Bickett’s three, the Owls made only four serving errors in the match.

“We stuck with our game plan all night long and we did everything to make those girls work for all their kills,” Laguna coach Jason Donnelly said. “That was the game plan going in. It was no big secret. You’re talking about two pretty elite athletes for high school volleyball. But, like I told the girls, I’ll take volleyball players over athletes in high school at any time. And the way we were serving and the way were defending, you can frustrate the heck out of a really good player. We did that tonight. Those girls are good but we were better.”

Laguna got the Scorpions out of system for most of the first two sets. Kendall White went on an eight-point serving run to start the second set. When Desert was able to put something together, the Owls seemed to always get their hands on the ball to keep plays alive.

“We’re just focusing on getting hands on everything we could,” said Zimmerman.

“More than any other match, we were really trying to get a touch. The soft block we got a couple, but the touches are what really helped us,” said Madsen.

“I think we took ourselves out of our game,” Desert coach Debbie Lewis said. “We normally pass a lot better than that in the first two games and hit a lot stronger and powerful. Saturday’s match we were so powerful and competitive. Tonight, it took us a while to get there. It’s really hard to lose those first two games, especially to lose them by that much. That’s not normal for us at all.”

Desert cleaned up its ball control in the third set and Cross and Shelton started making plays at the net. The Scorpions built an 11-4 lead, but Laguna battled back and pulled to with 14-12. Cross then put two balls away, the Owls were called for double hit and Tesheara Nelson served an ace to bump the lead to 18-12.

Lafitte hit a ball off the block to cut the lead to 19-15 before Shelton responded with a kill and stuff block for a 21-15 advantage.

“In the first points (of third set), I’d never seen our team play like that,” Bickett said. “We were flustered and nervous. Finally, coach timed out and said, ‘Hey guys you need to pick this up. You can’t expect them to roll over after two games. They’re going to come back and fight. In the next game you should come back and fight and put it back on them.’”

The fourth set was tight until the Owls went on a 3-point run to go up 20-16. Nicholson had two kills on the run and Lafitte scored on a hit off the block.

Madsen finished the match with back-to-back kills.

“If you look on the court, she’s always the one who wants it the most,” said Bickett of setting the ball to Madsen at the end of matches. “You can see the determination in her eyes. And you know she’s actually going to put it away when I give her the ball. So I all I had to do was give her the ball and I knew we were going to win. It always happens that way.”

Bickett was amazed at what she and her teammates accomplished.

“I’m still kind of in shock right now,” she said. “When we got the final point and everyone was cheering,  I’m saying, ‘What’s the deal here?’ I really didn’t know what was going on. Then I finally got the medal in my hand, and it says on the back I’m a Division 4 volleyball southern regional first place. It’s like, ‘Wow! I can’t believe I actually did this.’ It’s kind of crazy.”