M. Terry / SFVS

Dons tame the Tigers to win their fourth City title.

San Fernando had waited a long time for a chance to play for a City girls’ volleyball championship. Like, ever since girls’ volleyball became a City Section sport back in 1974.

“From what I can tell, this is the first time we’ve ever gotten this far,” noted current Coach Manny Flores, who brought the top seed Tigers into Roybal Learning Center in Los Angeles on Saturday, Nov. 11, to play for the Division II title.

San Fernando, however, will still have to wait to lift that trophy after being taken out in straight sets by Verdugo Hills, the second seed, on Nov. 11 at Royal Learning Center in Los Angeles.

It was the fourth City championship won by Verdugo Hills in its history, and its third title in the last four years.

The loss may have been a bit galling for the Tigers (18-7), who had defeated the Dons (24-3) in five sets back on Oct. 18. But they also might not have recognized the team they were playing. Verdugo Hills had undergone some changes, through no fault of its own.    

“We revamped a lot of things from the time we played them 3-4 weeks ago,” Dons Coach Will Reinhardt said. “Back then, my starting outside hitter was Kaitie Flores. Today she was my libero (a specially designated back row defensive player who wears a different uniform shirt from the rest of the team). We went through a lot of injuries through the season. My starting setter broke her leg, and we moved the starting libero (Giselle Mota) to setter. And I had to move a right side player to middle and a middle hitter to the outside.

“I had to make five different position changes. San Fernando hadn’t seen any of that.”

Still, the Tigers appeared ready to claim the first set, serving with a 24-22 lead.

But then San Fernando’s game began to unravel.

It started with the Tigers serve going into the net. Verdugo Hills got a point and the ball back, and then won the next four points to steal the victory, 26-24.

The win got the Dons rolling. And in the second set Verdugo Hills reversed an early 3-1 San Fernando lead on its serve by running off 13 consecutive points. The catalyst was Mota, whose line drive offerings were constantly difficult, if not impossible, for the Tigers to return. The rally ended when a Mota serve sailed out of bounds.

“I’ve really been working on my serving,” Mota, a senior, said afterward. “I’m happy I was able to…kinda demoralize them and hype us up. I’ve been working on serving since my freshman year. It’s my specialty, and to be able to display it here was really cool.”

San Fernando tried to recover in the third set, at one point taking a 7-6 lead and still only trailing 14-13 midway. But Dons middle hitter Cara Dunnigan, who recorded a team high 11 kills, along with fellow sophomores Sofia Villavicencio and Lisa Colvin — who had 10 kills and eight kills respectively — dominated the game at the net and kept the Tigers from engineering any elongated runs of their own.

“Winning the first set was the most important key to the Dons winning the title,” Dunnigan said. “It put (San Fernando) off their game, and it gave us the momentum to win the second and third sets.” But she also enjoyed being part of that 13-point run in the second set. “You just want it to keep on going. You don’t want to rush it. You’re not counting the points, but you know you keep serving.”

San Fernando would suffer one final indignity in the third set. Middle blocker Jacqueline Urquidez, a senior, had collided with a teammate while going for a return and injured her right knee, needing help to get off the court.

Flores sent in a replacement player. But it turned out the substitution was illegal. The score was 24-18 in favor of Verdugo Hills. The violation gave Verdugo its final point and the championship.

“(Urquidez) could have been replaced by anyone in the game that had not entered. She cannot be replaced by somebody who’s entered if another player on the roster [who had not played] is available,” Reinhardt explained.

“They entered someone who had already played, but they had two other girls who had yet to play. I (and Flores) asked ‘can’t we just play it anyway’ — like maybe he had miscommunicated the choice. But the officials said no, that’s it.“It was an anticlimactic way to win the game. But it happens, and it’s too bad it did. I felt that at 24-18 and us with the ball, we had a pretty good chance to win. But I’d rather win it on the court than in an unusual situation like that.”

San Fernando would have just liked, for once, to win.