FULLERTON — The Orange Coast College women's volleyball team used defense to not only get back into Wednesday's Orange Empire Conference clash with fellow unbeaten Fullerton, but eventually put the host Hornets on their heels.
But, in the end, the Pirates' inability to defend a 23-19 lead in Game 4 led to its demise as Fullerton claimed a 25-14, 19-25, 25-22, 26-24 triumph in a dogged duel that displayed championship determination on both sides of the net.
Fullerton (9-0, 2-0 in conference and ranked No. 4 in California) seized a 9-1 advantage in the opening set and eventually pushed the lead to 12 before settling for the dominant first-game win.
The lack of early intensity prompted OCC Coach Chuck Cutenese to substitute liberally and with freshman setter Megan Ritchie and sophomore defensive specialist Kiana Nicio pressed into action, the Pirates (6-1, 1-1, ranked No. 8 in the state) eventually stabilized and settled in for a competitive battle that featured a handful of long rallies.
The longest rally of the night occurred with OCC leading, 23-21, in the fourth set. A hitting error by Pirates' kills leader Sierra Brown eventually gave the point to the Hornets, who continued the run to pull even at 23-23.
Freshman outside hitter Kayla Mayer, who had seven of her 11 kills in the final game, put OCC on top, 24-23, by pounding a kill off the block. The tower official originally ruled that the ball went out of bounds without being touched by Fullerton. But after an animated protest by Cutenese, the officials convened and correctly ruled the ball glanced off a blocker, before hitting the antennae.
The Pirates, however, could not parlay the point, as a Fullerton kill, an OCC net violation and a finger-tip kill in the middle by Fullerton freshman Alyssa Jensen, closed out the match and sent the home crowd home happy.
Match point brought stunned silence from OCC players and coaches and, just minutes later, Cutenese stood motionless staring at the gym wall for several moments, his back to his players, before leaving the gym without talking to the media.
Had he chose to comment, Cutenese would likely have praised the defensive prowess of freshman libero Carina Perez (39 digs), as well as the aforementioned Nicio, who finished with 23 digs.
With ostensibly two liberos keeping rallies alive, OCC mounted a challenge to the Hornets, according to Fullerton Coach Eddie Rapp.
"They played some great defense and put the pressure back on us," Rapp said. "I think the key was for us not to start pressing too much. I know we gave up some runs because we pressed due to their defense. Luckily for us, we got composed and kind of tried to do the same to them."
Brown finished with 13 kills, with freshman middle blocker Kellie Kleszcz and Mayer following with 12 and 11, respectively.
Ritchie collected 25 assists and was in on five block assists to match Kleszcz for tops on the team.
The Fullerton block virtually matched that of the Pirates and the Hornets' six aces doubled OCC's total.
OCC, which had won 18 of 21 games entering Wednesday, will hope to rebound against unbeaten Golden West at home on Friday at 6 p.m. The Rustlers are ranked No. 3 in the state, with fellow OEC representative Irvine Valley ranked fifth.
Fullerton opened conference play with a five-set win over No. 19-ranked Cypress and Rapp said the conference has a healthy dose of parity at the top.