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Huntington Beach girls’ volleyball drops regional semifinal at Palos Verdes

Huntington Beach's Haylee LaFontaine, seen against Newport Harbor on Sept. 22, led the Oilers with 20 kills.
Huntington Beach’s Haylee LaFontaine, seen against Newport Harbor on Sept. 22, led the Oilers with 20 kills versus Palos Verdes on Saturday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Huntington Beach had battled back from a deficit, taking charge in the final stage of the fourth set to force a decisive fifth set in its CIF Southern California Regional Division I girls’ volleyball clash, and now it was all going wrong.

Palos Verdes, taking advantage of the visitors’ errors, leapt to a 12-4 advantage and stood just three points from its first regional final, but the Oilers weren’t going to fold so easily.

With Dani Sparks setting for Olivia Foye and then Haylee LaFontaine, and Tori Hagan sparking a defensive surge, Huntington Beach roared back, scoring eight of nine points to pull within a point of the Sea Kings, close enough to taste their first regional final in six years.

It didn’t happen. Palos Verdes, missing its best and biggest player, put away two deep balls to claim a thrilling 18-25, 25-21, 25-17, 21-25, 15-13 triumph Saturday night and hand the Oilers a painful end to a fine campaign.

Huntington Beach’s struggles passing out of the Sea Kings’ service and an early injury to 6-foot-2 sophomore opposite Taylor Ponchak left it in something of a bind, and its late comeback wasn’t quite enough.

“It was a good match,” Huntington Beach coach Craig Pazanti said. “[Palos Verdes is] a good team, they played super hard. It’s 15-13 in the fifth set of the state quarterfinal, that’s what’s going to happen. Yeah, it’s a bummer ... we just didn’t get it done.”

They came close behind a multipronged attack led by Sparks, LaFontaine (20 kills) and junior middle blocker Kylie Leopard (16 kills, four blocks) and a gutty effort from Ponchak (15 kills), who hurt her left ankle 16 points into the opening set but returned for the second set and battled through it the rest of the match.

“Taylor had a rough night,” Pazanti said. “She hurt her ankle and then all the angles started changing. She played her butt off. Stayed out there and kept playing and tried to give us some sort of advantage, but this stuff is going to happen on certain nights.”

Foye added 10 kills and 24 digs, scoring twice as Huntington Beach started its 8-1 tear to trim its deficit in the final set to 13-12.

Kendall Beshear provided the Sea Kings with match point on a kill that hit the end line — Pazanti thought it was long — and LaFontaine, with her third kill in a five-point sequence, again pulled the Oilers within a point of their hosts before Mallory LaBreche’s spike down the left sideline started Palos Verdes’ celebration.

“We just started playing too late in the game for us to catch back up,” Sparks said. “If we had come back a little earlier, I think we would have won.”

Palos Verdes (22-8), who like Huntington Beach went 0-3 in CIF Southern Section Division 1 pool play and reached the regional tournament for the second straight year, advances to Tuesday’s regional final against Southern Section Division 2 champion Vista Murrieta (23-10), a straight-sets winner over top-seeded Carlsbad La Costa Canyon. The winner heads to next Saturday’s state title game.

“They did [make it thrilling at the end], and we expected it,” Palos Verdes head coach Patrick Lynch said. “I mean, they’re a great team, and great teams come back and never give up. And that’s what I told the girls, just expect a battle every point. It doesn’t matter what the lead is.”

The Sea Kings prospered behind Beshear (19 kills, three blocks), Dani Rusich (17 kills, three blocks) and setter Tatum Lane (54 assists), making up for the absence of 6-foot-4 outside hitter Kaci Demaria, one of the top sophomores in the country. She’s been battling a flu bug that has dwelled within the Palos Verdes roster over the past month and deprived it of five players in all Saturday.

Huntington Beach (28-8) started slowly, falling behind, 12-7, in the first set, then went on an 18-6 run, with three kills each from Leopard and Foye and a couple of aces from Hagan, to take the first set. Palos Verdes was in charge of the next two sets, absorbing two Oilers runs to claim the second set after building 14-9 and 22-15 advantages, then using a 14-5 run to pull away in the third.

The Sea Kings led much of the fourth, too, but by never more than three points, before Huntington Beach outscored them, 11-5, down the stretch behind four LaFontaine kills and aces from Kami Milius and Foye.

The Oilers then scored the first point of the fifth set before conceding six successive points and then six of eight, errors accounting for most of them. The late run couldn’t save them, but it provides some impetus for next season.

“This kind of gives us momentum,” Sparks said, “and it does put a chip on our shoulder. We’re a younger team, and it’s going to make us come back even stronger.”

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