BELLARMINE-JEFFERSON HIGH — Winning first-round CIF Southern Section girls' volleyball playoff matches in easy fashion has become a tradition at Bellarmine-Jefferson High.
The Guards opened this season's postseason with a home match against Santa Clara. Although Bell-Jeff took some time to warm up after last playing in a match seven days before, the Guards came to life and rolled to a 25-15, 25-9, 25-13 win against the visiting Saints.
The win earns Bell-Jeff (13-6-2) a spot in the second round. The Guards will take on the winner of Granada Hills Hillcrest Christian-Alverno in a contest at 7 p.m. Thursday at a site to be determined.
Bell-Jeff Coach Miguel Segura said he sees having relatively easy opening playoff matches as an advantage for his team.
"That's why we work so hard to try and dominate our league," said Segura, whose team notched its sixth straight Santa Cruz League championship this year. "We want to get that opening game at home, hopefully get a third-place team so we can kind of warm up in the playoffs.
"It also gives our youngsters a chance to get in the game and kind of get over their fear of the playoffs a little."
Segura and the Guards have built up quite a postseason resume the past few years. In 2008, Bell-Jeff advanced to the CIF quarterfinals and followed that with a trip to the program's first-ever championship appearance in 2009. Last season, the team advanced to the semifinals.
"We have a motto for the playoffs: Desire to win," Segura said. "We expect bigger and better things these days, and that includes doing well in the playoffs."
One of the advantages the Guards have this season that they haven't had in years past is a couple of players taller than 6-feet patrolling the middle. Junior Mariah Bankhead and senior Jasmine Smith are basketball players who are enjoying their first season in volleyball.
Smith, an All-CIF Southern Section and All-Area basketball standout, gives the Guards a lot of athleticism at middle blocker.
'It's been fun this season, being my first in volleyball," Smith said. "I just love going up and getting a block. I'm still learning, but the girls have been great."
Another All-CIF player for Bell-Jeff is senior outside hitter Jocelyn Cervantes, who is in her fourth season. Cervantes led the way against Santa Clara (6-10) — the third-place team from the Frontier League — collecting a match-high 18 kills.
Junior outside hitter Taryn Nelson contributed 11 kills and Amanda Maalouf had 26 assists.
The Guards let the Saints hang around in the first game, as Bell-Jeff held a 15-12 advantage. But the Guards embarked on a 7-0 run later in the game to seize the momentum.
Segura said slow starts for the Guards in the opening games of matches has been an unnerving trend this season.
"It's just the Bell-Jeff style, I guess," Segura said. "I haven't figured out why we always have slow starts. But once we stop playing around and the other team starts to challenge us, we usually step up and play like we should.
It took some time for the Guards to break out in the second game, holding a 12-6 lead midway through. But again Bell-Jeff came alive, outscoring Santa Clarita, 13-3, the rest of the way to easily take the game.
The Saints took their only lead of the evening — be it brief — in the third game, 3-2. The Guards battled back, taking advantage of a Saints hitting error and a kill by Cervantes to take the lead back, 4-3.
With a three-point lead, 12-9, Bell-Jeff began to turn it on and left the Saints in its wake.
"We know things are going to get harder from now on in the playoffs," Segura said. "We just have to be ready and play our best."