WHITTIER — Saving their best rally for last, the St. Monica Academy girls' volleyball team delivered its school a first-ever CIF Southern Section championship by defeating top-seeded Irvine Tarbut V'Torah, 16-25, 21-25, 25-13, 25-17, 15-11 in the Division V-A title match Saturday evening at Rio Hondo College.
The victory is the first in two attempts for the seven-time reigning International League champion Crusaders (24-3-2), who earned advancement to the CIF State playoffs, which begin Tuesday with pairings released Sunday.
"It's special, if not unbelievable," said St. Monica Coach Darren Bradley, who also serves as the school's athletic director. "It's like a dream. I was telling a couple of players, it's unreal. I can't believe this is happening. The girls worked so hard and it's just amazing."
While third-seeded St. Monica, playing its first season since the school moved to its current La Crescenta campus, had won 12 of 13 sets during its playoff push entering Saturday, the Crusaders had to rally to win several of those games. That comeback streak was extended at Rio Hondo College.
St. Monica surrendered three of the first four points in the fifth set, but responded with a 5-1 run that culminated on an ace from libero Yamila Evans (19 digs and three aces) to give the Crusaders a 6-4 lead.
While Tarbut V' Torah knotted the score at 6 on a Crusaders' defensive error, the Lions never again took the lead, as St. Monica scored three of the next four to go up, 10-7.
The Express League champion Lions (25-2) never cut their deficit to less than two points over the rest of the final set, which came to an end thanks to a kill from Sophia Vega.
"It was just an amazing experience," said Vega, who was a surprise leader with 13 kills and two blocks. "I can't even explain. What I did tonight, I couldn't have done it without these girls. I'm so proud."
St. Monica found itself down, 2-0, after Tarbut junior outside hitter Lauren Cohen tallied five kills and an ace in a 25-16 win in the first game followed by three kills and one ace from Claire Cohen in a second-set 25-21 victory for the Lions.
"We were shaky and nervous in those first games, but I thought we still had a chance," said senior Michelle Hall, one of three seniors who was a member of the 2012 St. Monica team that advanced to and lost the Division V-A championship, 3-2, to Orangewood Academy. "We just told ourselves that we needed to pick it up."
A St. Monica team that was looking to catch Tarbut by surprise, instead went for a frontal attack.
"We were mad," said St. Monica senior outside hitter Therese Boles, who finished eight kills and a team-best 26 digs. "I know I've said that in the past, but we couldn't lose like that. If we were going to lose, we were going to go out swinging."
St. Monica delivered a vicious jab in the third set, stunning Tarbut to the tune of a 25-13 victory fueled by four kills each from Vega and Boles.
In the fourth set, St. Monica was back on the attack and took an 8-0 lead against a still staggering Tarbut squad before the Lions made a late charge.
Junior outside hitter Molly Hagan (26 assists), though, delivered the 25-17 victory with a kill that sent the contest into a fifth set.
"I think we just started playing a little tighter than we would have liked to," Tarbut Coach Lucas Black said. "We were also playing for our first championship and they got a little nervous and a little timid. Once St. Monica got going, it was tough to stop them."
While the offense certainly turned up its production, the Crusaders' defense also was stout. St. Monica held Lauren Cohen, Tarbut's top attacker, to two kills over the final four sets as the 5-foot-11 hitter finished with seven kills.
Racheal Aronoff led Tarbut with 12 kills.
"When we went down 0-2, I was relaxed – honest," Evans said. "We had been here so many times before. We had fallen behind so many times. It's like we were right where we had trained to be."