The Arroyo Grande High girls volleyball team never had to force a fifth set this season before Thursday night’s CIF-Southern Section Division 2AA second round match at home against La Cañada.
Backed into a corner, the Eagles busted out in a big way.
Arroyo Grande won the fourth set and the decisive fifth by a combined 26 points, roaring back to defeat the Spartans 25-15, 18-25, 23-25, 25-8, 15-6 and advance to Saturday’s quarterfinals.
“They are not going to give it to you,” Eagles coach Erine Santa Cruz told his team after dropping the third set. “You’ve got to go out and take this set from these guys. You’ve got to win every single point.”
Arroyo Grande did darn near just that.
After falling behind 3-0 in the fourth, Emily Sonny’s three straight kills and Kacee Fox’s precision serving sparked a 13-0 run, and the Eagles cruised from there in front of the raucous Blue Zoo student section.
“It was just whoever wants it the most — either us or them,” said Sonny, a senior transfer from Orange County. “And we wanted it more.”
Sonny had 23 kills, as did Ashlyn Herlihy — the second member of the dynamic hitting duo that poses a matchup nightmare for any school to defend.
“It takes so much pressure of certain players to play good,” Herlihy said of Sonny’s presence. “It just helps us out tremendously, and I love it.”
The Eagles improved to 29-4 on the year, with all four defeats coming in best-of-three-set matches at tournaments earlier in the year. In all, Arroyo Grande has won 13 straight.
And this was the toughest of them all.
Led by co-captain Taylor Page and fellow senior outside hitter Jenna Gray, La Cañada was the better team in the second and third set, playing in rhythm and keeping the Eagles defense guessing on cross-court kills and hits down the alley.
The two combined for 22 kills in the two sets, and Gray had back-to-back aces in which Herlihy and setter Alaina Hogeboom uncharacteristically collided both times.
“We had no answer for the outside,” Santa Cruz said. “We had to get a block just to make them think. Jamie (Walsh) blocked (Gray) once, and then they started getting hitting errors.”
The front line started to block better in the fourth, and Fox led the backline in digging up more balls, leading to six Spartan hitting errors in the momentum-swinging 13-0 run.
“In high school volleyball — any volleyball, really — you want to take away the high-percentage shot and make them do something different,” Santa Cruz said. “That’s what they did to us, but Emily and Ash just kept on going at them.”
Sonny had an ace and Herlihy had a kill on one of Hogeboom’s 54 assists to up the Eagles’ lead to 18-5 in the fourth.
Another kill by Herlihy — followed by an equally emphatic celebration — ended the fourth, and Sonny put the finishing touches on a dominant fifth set with a kill down the middle from the back row.
“I’ve never seen two hitters as good as them on the same team,” Santa Cruz said. “Emily might be a better all-around volleyball player … but Ashlyn is a big key. When she does something, it really ignites everyone.”
Arroyo Grande will travel to second-seeded South Torrance for Saturday’s quarterfinal matchup.
The Eagles are hoping the momentum from their first adrenaline-pumping five-set match of the season comes along for the ride.
“You’ve got to transfer this energy over there,” Herlihy said. “We’re not going to have the home-court advantage and the Blue Zoo like we did tonight, but that’s not going to stop us from going out and fighting.”