By Loren Kopff
LYNWOOD-The Gahr girls volleyball team entered its regular season finale with Lynwood knowing that it could finish as high as second place in the San Gabriel Valley League, or completely miss the playoffs. Although Lynwood had upset the Gladiators at home last season and taken Gahr to four sets earlier this year, head coach Iris Najera wasn’t nervous at all.
She was confident that her team would win, which they did 25-21, 23-25, 25-19, 27-25, but just to be on the safe side, she had a message for her team before the start of the match.
“I reminded the girls of what happened last year,” Najera said. “The people who were part of the team last year remembered but the new people didn’t know. So it was important that they knew that this match is really big. We always knew that Lynwood is a very physical team and they’re very aggressive.”
Gahr ends the regular season at 9-14 overall and 6-4 in the league. The Gladiators tied Paramount for second place but because of a season-sweep over the Pirates, will go in the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section Division II-AA playoffs as the league’s second place representative.
Gahr was down 6-3 and 8-5 but a serving error on Lynwood allowed the Gladiators to tie the first set at 9-9 and from there, junior setter Niahni Moultry served five straight points. The Knights, though, would battle back and after an ace from Jessica Montoya, the set was tied at 20-20. After Najera called a timeout, another serving error led to junior libero Naomi Belgrave serving the next two points with an ace and a double hit violation on Lynwood.
Both teams combined for 10 aces and 18 kills in the set but it was becoming apparent that Lynwood’s offense throughout the match would come from two players-Esther Duru (four kills, three blocks) and Alexxsis Todd (two kills) in the first set. And they were just warming up.
Lynwood built a 10-5 lead in the second set on five kills from Duru and three more from Todd. But junior middle blocker Tyra Parrish didn’t want any part of that as she had three kills, plus a pair of aces from junior Kathryn Pedraza to tie the set at 10-10. Eventually, Gahr had a 23-20 lead but Duru had three kills and Todd added an ace down the stretch to give the Knights the victory.
“They’re great hitters and it’s difficult to defend because you don’t know if the setter is going to set the two in the middle or the back row in the middle,” Najera said. “They have a really good offense working.”
Lynwood started the third set strong, building a 5-1 lead and was still ahead at 7-5 before Parrish knocked down her ninth kill. Then Moultry reeled off five straight points to give Gahr a lead it would not relinquish. She had three aces and Parrish had a kill and a block during Moultry’s serve. Then with Gahr up 15-11, senior setter Frankie Di Iorio served six straight points, four of which were aces.
But Lynwood rallied to make the set much closer than what it really was thanks to three kills from Todd, two aces from Duru and an ace from Linda Ruiz.
“I just had a nice talk with my girls about momentum and how volleyball is all about momentum, more so than any other sport because if you win a point, the winner of the point gets the next serve and you’re attacking again,” Najera said. “Every other sport, if one team wins a point, the opponent has a chance.”
Both teams would tie 10 times in the fourth set and there were six lead changes with Parrish and senior outside hitter Destiny Hayes providing most of the action for Gahr and Duru and Todd the same for the Knights. Gahr had leads of four points on two separate occasions only to see Lynwood come back to forge a tie. Todd’s 19th and 20th kill put Lynwood at set point twice. But Hayes would respond with her 14th and 15th kill respectively. Then Di Iorio served the biggest two points of her senior season, both of them aces to end the match. She would have nine aces in the match.
“It’s very rare to have a [freshman] starter come in and that is what Frankie was four years ago,” Najera said. “She has always set the tone for us. She has run our offense. I give her the freedom to run our offense because when I used to play softball and I was the catcher, I liked calling the plays. It was very fitting for her to have a really good serving day like she did and then to end it with her serving.”
Parrish finished with 14 kills while senior outside hitter Stephanie Rodriguez and Moultry added six and five kills respectively. Even though Gahr had its worst record since going 9-18 in 1999 and finished with a losing record for the second straight season and third out of the last four seasons, it avoided staying home for the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Now, Gahr is hoping to get past the first round for the first time since 2005.
“It was a stressful season and my girls always played hard,” Najera said. “They just sometimes get overwhelmed. So, it was a big relief to win this game.”