By Jonathan Andrade
For The Signal
It took four seasons, but the Valencia girls’ volleyball team was finally able to give head coach Kristin Dolan her first playoff victory at the helm of the Vikings program.
“I wasn’t even thinking about that,” said Dolan, who took over the job in 2019 from Ray Sanchez, the longtime Viking coach who stepped down midseason after winning 16 league titles. “I just like winning.”
Valencia (18-8 overall) took down Westridge (11-9) of Pasadena in four sets (25-13, 23-25, 25-16, 25-21) of the opening round of the CIF-Southern Section Division 5 playoffs Thursday night at home. It was the Vikings’ first postseason victory since a 2017 sweep of Yucaipa.
Seniors Tara Gaspar and Hailey McKell powered a balanced Valencia attack, combining for 17 kills. Fellow seniors Brooklyn Cohen and Nelia Trower, both middle blockers, held it down up front, tacking on 11 and 9 kills, respectively.
“To make it out with a win in our first playoff match, it was so much fun,” Cohen said. “It’s great to keep our season going a little bit longer. There’s nothing like the energy and intensity of the playoffs.”
The Vikings combined for 12 service aces, led by seniors Makena Schaumloeffel and Mya St. Clair, who each had three aces.
“It was good,” Dolan said of her team’s performance. “It wasn’t great, but we get to go back to practice to keep working for great.”
Despite a rocky start, Valencia managed to lead the entire opening frame. Senior middle blocker Nelia Trower powered home back-to-back kills up front to push Valencia to a 12-7 advantage, forcing a Westridge timeout. Aces from Gaspar and Schaumloeffel helped the Vikings close the frame strong.
The gym was eerily quiet between sets, as if the crowd sensed a senior-heavy Viking sweep was inevitable. Westridge, a team with only one senior, wouldn’t go quietly.
As Westridge took its first lead of the match in the second set, 3-2, the cheers of the 12 members of the traveling Tiger crowd began to grow. Valencia evened it up at 18-18 after trailing by as many as five points, but Westridge pulled away late for the 25-23 win.
“It’s their (Vikings players) first experience in this situation,” Dolan said of the playoffs. “You could tell there was a little bit of nerves and hesitation. They worked it out as they went.”
The Westridge chants grew louder heading into the third set, and the Viking urgency was apparent. After a Dolan pep talk, the Vikings came out swinging aggressively in the third, silencing the small Westridge cheer section and cruising to a third set victory.
The fourth frame was tighter, but the Vikings managed to close it out, 25-21, sending Westridge on a long bus ride home.
Valencia, which reached the CIF-SS Division 1A finals in 2015, will face Bishop Diego in the second round Saturday.
Saturday is also Gaspar’s birthday. No need to cancel any plans.
Gaspar, soon to be 18 years old, said she saw the second-round matches would take place on her birthday so she planned to be on the court with her teammates.
“I was 100% set on playing. I’m just really happy to continue to play with this team,” Gaspar said, adding this team has the talent to make a deep playoff run. “I think we can win this whole thing.”