Women's Volleyball: Rustlers handle Pirates

The Orange Coast College women's volleyball team is ranked No. 8 in the state for a reason. Coach Chuck Cutenese's Pirates entered the week 6-0, having won 18 of 21 games and boasting a strong outside hitter, superb defense anchored by one of the most prolific liberos in California, two quality middle blockers, and many other characteristics of a championship contender.

But after back-to-back losses within a three-day span, including a 25-17, 20-25, 25-21, 25-22 Orange Empire Conference home setback to No. 3-ranked Golden West on Friday night, Cutenese's immediate challenge is cultivating confidence.

"I think we had huge growth from Wednesday [a four-game conference loss at No. 4-ranked Fullerton] to Friday," Cutenese said after his team fell to 6-2, 1-2 in conference. "The problem is, how do you have two losses and convince your team you are right in [the OEC title hunt]."

Golden West (9-0, 3-0) remains foremost among OEC title contenders, but No. 4-ranked Fullerton (10-0, 3-0) and No. 5-ranked Irvine Valley (9-0, 3-0) are additional heavyweights poised to knock OCC onto the list of pretenders.

"The conference is always a meat grinder," Cutenese said. "Every year, it comes down to the final week of the season to see where everybody falls out."

The Pirates, after dropping the first set by eight points, never trailed by more than four. And they led in every game, including rallying from a 15-11 deficit to pull even at 17-17 in the final set, in which they led as late as 20-19.

"I thought we fought, where we didn't fight on Wednesday," Cutenese said. "I thought our serving was better; we hit our spots. We just need to clean things up late in each of the games. We've definitely found our identity, the problem is we haven't found our confidence late in each game. That means wanting to be the person who gets the ball late in a game."

Freshman libero Carina Perez was definitely not painted with that brush, as she amassed 34 digs.

Sierra Brown, a 5-foot-8 freshman outside hitter out of Newport Harbor High, finished with 22 kills and after two games had 10 of her team's 18 kills to that point.

Freshman opposite Megan Rawlings and 6-0 freshman middle blocker Kellie Kleszcz chipped in 11 and nine kills apiece, while setter Megan Ritchie had 32 assists.

Kourtney Chadderdon, a 5-10 sophomore middle blocker, had two solo blocks and six block assists.

But Golden West freshmen middle blockers Drucilla Gauta (16 kills) and Nikol Powers (five kills), got the better of the duel between the pins.

"That's what killed us," Cutenese said of the Rustlers' middles, particularly Gauta. "We couldn't stop [Gauta]."

In addition, Golden West relied on freshman outside hitter Jordyn Sanchez (17 kills and 19 digs) and sophomore outside hitter Tyler Davis (11 kills).

Brown had eight kills in the third set, including a roll shot off the tape that pulled the Pirates within 22-20. But the visitors scored three of the next four points to avert falling behind on games.

Three Rawlings kills in a four-point span helped OCC trim a 14-10 deficit to 16-14. And when Brown pounded her final kill, OCC had a 19-18 advantage. After both teams traded service errors, Davis had consecutive kills to lift Golden West to a 21-20 lead and it never trailed again.

The Pirates visit IVC on Friday at 6 p.m.. OCC plays host to Fullerton on Nov. 1 and visits Golden West on Nov. 6 before playing host to IVC on Nov. 23.

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