As Los Angeles City Section championships go, the girls’ volleyball finals played on Saturday, Nov. 9, at Birmingham Community Charter High School, had a little bit of everything — drama, passion, exhilaration, heartbreak, beautiful rallies, breathtaking moments of athleticism, and several shining moments.
Two Valley area teams came away with titles: Grant High defeated Sherman Oaks CES in four sets to win Division III, and Chatsworth High survived Venice High in five sets to win Division I, before scores of screaming fans doing everything possible to urge their favorites on to victory.
For Chatsworth, it was its fifth section title and first since 2017. For Grant, it was its first girls’ championship.
Here is a look back at both achievements.
Before the championship match on Saturday, there was nothing about the 2019 girls’ volleyball season Chatsworth could hang its hat on besides frustration and disappointment.
The Chancellors (22-22-1) lost as often as they won. The team had its own inner turmoil; one captain quit and transferred to another school, another starter was ruled ineligible, and so was her planned replacement. The rotating lineup that played in the final against Venice had two weeks rather than a few months of playing together.
Yet there were the Chancellors in the end, embracing each other, mugging for photos, and hugging another City championship trophy after finally vanquishing a valiant Gondoliers squad, 25-15, 25-21, 18-25, 23-25, 15-10.
If nothing else, this trophy will serve as a permanent reminder for the team and Coach Sina Aghassy of what is possible if you just keep trying and striving.
“I feel like a lot of our season was geared toward making the Open Division, being the best team we could be, and being results-driven rather than enjoying the process of each step of the way,” Aghassy said. “The big quote I had for the girls this season was ‘things gotta get worse before they get better.’
That the final took all five sets should have surprised no one that had watched the Chancellors play this season.
Chatsworth looked solid in taking the first two sets, with the presence of middle blockers Imani Taylor, a sophomore, and Rylee Gonzales, a senior, constantly thwarting the Gondoliers’ attacks and kill shots; junior libero Sydney Lee serving a string of aces; and Taylor and outside hitter Geraldine Martinez, a freshman, pounding kill shot after kill shot.
Then suddenly, things changed. Venice middle hitter Makena Cioni, a senior, began finding holes in the Chancellors’ defense. Kyryll Delos Santos, a senior, got a hot hand with her serve. Venice (32-18) roared back to take sets three and four, overcoming a 21-15 deficit in the latter set to square the match at 2-2.
“It’s human nature when you’re doing so well to let up a little bit,” Aghassy said. “I have a lot of respect for (Venice coaches) Raul (Aviles) and (Alan Hunt) and the job they do, so I was expecting something like the third set where their team would fight hard with their season on the line. I was a little disappointed with the fourth set; I thought we were in control, but we started to play a little timid. And that might have something to do with playing a bunch of freshmen and sophomores that still need to develop what they are confident in, and what their strengths are.”
The Chancellors, however, dug deep one more time, took an early 7-2 lead in the fifth set, and fought off the last of the Gondoliers rallies to win.
“This team battled through adversity all season long,” Coach Sina Aghassy said. ”And what’s a championship without a little adversity.”
The struggle couldn’t dampen the shy yet bubbly enthusiasm of Taylor afterward.
“We wanted to win it in three, but they came back,” Taylor said. “It’s just an honor to win it. When you think about it, we did it as a team together. We worked so hard for this. And we did it. It’s awesome.”
The victory had a different meaning for older players like opposite hitter Josephina Palomera. “The kids call her the ‘Team Mom,’” Aghassy said, with affection. “She is one of the unspoken leaders. She’s always looking out for everybody, is always there to pick them up. She is the glue that keeps everything together, and is a vital part of the season and our success. I knew Jo would be super appreciative of the moment and the magnitude of what she was able to accomplish.”
“I think, honestly, those five sets defined us,” said Palomera, a junior. “We’d played five sets several times this year and every time we’d fallen short. But I knew this time, it was ours. I just knew this time we had it in us.
“Everything that happened [this season] to Chatsworth was a blessing and a curse…[But] no matter what we’d gone through, we pushed through it. And if you could push through that, you could push through anything.”
It was slightly more than 24 hours after the last point that gave Grant the Division III title over Sherman Oaks CES by scores of 25-12, 15-25, 25-23 and 25-20, and Grant Coach Art Yang was still wrapping his head around the team’s first volleyball title.
“To be honest…I don’t think it has completely sunk in yet,” Yang said by phone on Sunday, Nov. 10.
First ever titles are often like that — it’s either catching lightning in a bottle or the culmination of several attempts by a good team that finally figures out how to win.
The Lancers (19-13 after the final) are a bit of both scenarios. They are basically a young group — only five seniors — but have some blooming talents like outside hitter Kayla Fray, a sophomore, and middle blocker Kyla Alvarez, a junior. Collectively they have bought into Yang’s volleyball philosophies of clean passing, strong serving, and letting the defense lead to the offense.
There was one other important ingredient to the 2019 team.
“We say it all the time, as we end practice — ‘family.’ And it really feels like a family,” Yang said. “The kids hang out with each other and genuinely like each other. I don’t have any infighting or divisiveness in my group. They genuinely care for each other and have learned to play together.”
Despite struggling in the early part of the season, the coach had an inkling his team might evolve into a contender — a feeling that grew stronger following a late September tournament at Maywood CES High.
“I felt they started to believe in themselves when we played in (the Atlantic Classic Tournament),” Yang said. “We played against some good D-I and II teams and made it to the finals.”
Still, you don’t know if you can win a championship until you get into a championship match, as Grant did when it faced Sherman Oaks CES High (18-4-1) in the final on Saturday.
The teams split the first two sets, making the third set crucial because the loser would have to win the last two sets to become the champion. Both teams expended tremendous energy, and there were several extended rallies. The set didn’t end until Lancers setter Ashley Castro deftly tapped the deciding point over the net.
SOCES continued to put up a fight in the fourth set, but Grant had come too far to let victory slip away. Fray ended the match with the last of her 20 kills.
“In the third set we all collectively said ‘hey, we’re in this, we want to win this,” Fray said. “It feels so amazing to be part of the first championship team. It blows my mind. I’m so happy and can’t wait to celebrate.”
Libero Kayla Marasigan, a senior, shed happy tears at being able to finish her high school career as a City champion.
“We worked so hard for this,” Marasigan said. “I told the team at the beginning of league that we would work our butts off to get a championship, and that’s what we did. That’s why I’m crying right now, because it just warms my heart that we did that…we were starting to lose our poise, but we did compose ourselves. They were a challenge, but we were equal to it.”