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By Fred Altieri
Sports Reporter 

Culver's Volleyball Championship Is One For The Ages

Back to Back CIF Championships a First For Culver High


November 9, 2017

Fred Altieri

Repeat CIF Champions! 2017 Culver City High Girls Volleyball Team

It was historic. Culver City High girls volleyball established a new standard last Saturday afternoon in their dramatic five-set come from behind victory over archrival Santa Monica High to win the 2017 CIF Southern Section Division 4 Championship at Cerritos College in Norwalk.

It marked the very first time any Culver High athletic program has won back-to-back CIF Championships.

Last season the Lady Centaurs won their first-ever 2016 CIF Division 5 title with a four-set victory over La Reina High of Thousand Oaks. They now begin their quest for the California State Championships this Wednesday, November 15, 180 miles north in a First Round match against the Exeter High Monarchs, located a few miles east of Visalia in Tulare County.

The Culver girls fell behind two sets to one before storming back to capture the title, including a convincing 15-10 final game victory. It was accomplished with preparation, execution, coaching, strategy, tactics, senior leadership and 18 girls giving their all. It brought their current season to an unprecedented 30-1 record under Head Coach Tanner Siegal and Assistant Coach Eriko Gambol.

"The match definitely lived up to the hype. Obviously two teams that are very talented and are as familiar with each other had the potential to go the distance. The key was to not get rattled, to maintain trust in each other and the game plan," said Coach Siegal. Impressive was Culver beating Santa Monica in all four meetings this season, another first.

"Credit to our players, they are so disciplined and focused to execute at a very high level when we needed it the most. They're a mature group and have strong leaders in their seniors. They take the game very serious and it's a trickle-down effect from there and obviously having a little bit of success from last year's first CIF title."

Culver took the first set 25-14 before Santa Monica steadied their game to take the next two sets: 25-21 and 25-23. Siegal gave a rundown game-by-game. "Game 1 played out exactly how we wanted it to. We got the looks we wanted to get. It was the exact kind of start that we hoped to get off in a championship game."

"Game 2, we knew Santa Monica would come back answering. The key to Santa Monica being successful with their block, Sophie Major (outside hitter) is so good at using the high hands and creating problems for our blockers. They have an amazing coaching staff, team and program. We weren't surprised by going down. We knew they were going to be tough."

"Game 3 was a tough one. We were up 22-19 at one point. When you have three points to win and they need three points to tie you, they have to outscore you two to one to beat you. That's a situation we didn't allow ourselves to be vulnerable the entire season. Unfortunately we did it at the worst time possible."

Heading into the must-win fourth set the Culver girls responded to senior captain Jessica Stewart's inspirational talk. Siegal: "That's what this team does and it starts with Jessica Stewart. She's literally an extension of the coaching staff. The moment the team starts to feel like it's going down that route that we don't want to go, we just hear her voice starting to get louder. She takes over and she gets everything back under control."

"I said a little piece to them and then Jessica, she had them. She had their attention. I swear there were 34 eyeballs directly glued to what her mouth was saying. I also knew how important it was for her to send that message to her teammates at that moment. It was time to rally the troops and that's exactly what she did. Not only did they trust her they believed her."

The Centaurs jumped out to a 17-6 lead in the fourth set and were off to the races as senior co-captain and outside hitter Lena Johnson took over from the left side. She concluded the set with 11 kills in 15 attempts while Stewart, Megan Shimoda, Halen Anderson and Kylie Nakashima swept the court with multiple digs to drive the comeback. Culver carried the set 25-15 and the momentum into the deciding game.

Coaches Siegal and Gambol saved their defining tactic for last. "Game 5 came and Eriko and I decided to make the switch. We knew if we waited until Game 5 Santa Monica would not be able to counter it. If we had made the move in Game 4 they could have countered it in Game 5 with an adjustment on their roster."

"As the match went on Lauren Tishkoff was hitting over blockers all day. She was displaying a phenomenal amount of athleticism. We usually put Lauren on the smaller blocker and put the more experienced blocker in Lena on the bigger blocker. In Game 5 we put Lena on the smaller blocker. It played out perfectly."

"When we got into those later rotations we had our closer in Lena with the exact matchup we wanted. And it was checkmate. They just could not top it. That was a big move and I thought the players executed it perfectly."

Siegal reiterated the team's effort: "We had a freshman playing in that championship game, Itzely Cerda. She made some phenomenal plays from the back row. To see her making plays like that at this level... how good is this girl going to get. Kylie Nakashima, Halen Anderson and Itzely Cerda were unbelievable defensively. They sacrificed their bodies all night long."

"This team is a powerhouse offensively. When teams play us they're playing a team they're just not used to seeing. We have great offensive hitters and smart players in Megan Shimoda and Jessica Stewart who from the right side just add a totally different dimension to the attack."

"We keyed in on their outside hitters a lot. Sophie Major and Veronica Johnson, their outside hitters, are a handful no doubt. But look at the amount of attempts those two players had. When you take that many approaches and that many swings you are feeling it. And they got worn down."

Fred Altieri

Culver girls celebrate comeback victory over SaMoHi

"We were physically ready to go and we spread our offense. We gave Lena the break she needed throughout the match by bringing in defensive specialists. And boy did that pay off because in Game 5 when their players were huffing and puffing, Lena Johnson was blasting away on a small blocker."

Wednesday's trek up to Exeter will be a new experience for the girls volleyball program. "It could take us four hours to get there. We've never had to travel like this before. The key will be how well we handle the situation. It should be a great match," said Siegal.

"This is an incredibly humble team. I don't think I've ever heard about how this team only has one loss or we have 30 wins. They just don't talk about themselves that much. They don't brag. They just want to know what's the next challenge or task, give it their best shot and see what happens.


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