LA CAÑADA — Everyone in La Cañada High's gym Thursday night was treated to a roller coaster when the Spartans hosted Mission Viejo in the second round of the CIF Southern Section Division II-AA playoffs.
Unfortunately for La Cañada, the ride didn't end how it wanted, as Mission Viejo pulled off a dramatic, five-game, 25-23, 23-25, 25-27, 26-24, 16-14, victory that left the Spartans in tears.
"We had a chance, but someone just has to step up," La Cañada Coach Brock Turner said. "That's the difference between a champion. We had our chances in the end, but we just didn't execute."
It looked like the Spartans (22-11) had the match in hand when they went on a five-point run to take a 12-8 lead in the fifth game, which prompted a timeout from Mission Viejo Coach Gus Culver, who knew there were more twists and turns waiting.
"I told [my team during the timeout] if we just stayed in it and took better care of the ball we'd have an opportunity," Culver said. "Every game got tighter in the end in that match — no matter who was leading.
"I told them this game would tighten up in the end."
The Diablos (17-9) took Culver's words to heart and tied the fifth game at 13, behind three blocks and two La Cañada hitting errors. Another error gave Mission Viejo its first lead since it led, 8-7. A kill from La Cañada's Katie Pierce tied it again at 14, but two straight kills from Mission Viejo's Sophie Rowe, who had a match-high 24 kills, clinched the game and match for the Diablos, 16-14.
Turner said he thought the pressure played a big part down the stretch.
"I think there were some nerves involved," Turner said. "That's part of a big match and some embrace it. That's what you play for, you want that pressure match."
Mission Viejo got out to an early 12-6 lead in the first game, before La Cañada went on a four-point run to bring the score to 12-10. Mission Viejo never trailed and was at game-point with a 24-20 lead. The Spartans managed to go on a 3-1 run, behind three kills from Micaela Anderson, who finished with 19 overall, but still dropped the first game, 25-23, as Rowe notched another kill on game-point.
The Spartans bounced back in the next game, taking a 23-17 lead late. Mission Viejo mounted a late 6-1 rally of its own to bring the game to 24-23. Pierce snapped the Diablos run with a huge block to secure the second game for La Cañada, 25-23.
"We knew what we had to do," said La Cañada's senior libero and co-captain Catherine Horner. "It was our home court and we weren't going to just let them have it. We were going to fight for everything."
Both teams battled back and forth in the third game, which featured nine ties and six lead changes. Neither squad could keep a lead late, as there were ties at 19, 20, 23, 24 and 25. La Cañada saw a 23-21 lead morph into a 24-23 advantage for Mission Viejo, behind a Spartans' hitting error and two kills from Rowe.
The Spartans bounced back with a 4-1 run behind two kills from Kendall Walbrecht, who finished with a team-high 20 kills for La Cañada, and a game-point block from the Spartans' Claire Hilsen for a 27-25 victory.
"This match went back and forth and in the third game we were on the other end of that," Culver said. "I think the girls felt the wind come out of their sails. We thought we were going to win that third game and go up 2-1."
A fifth game looked like a forgone conclusion when the Diablos held a 21-16 lead in game four. La Cañada fought all the way back to tie it at 24, though, behind two kills and two blocks from Pierce. Then Rowe came up clutch with a kill, followed by a block from Mission Viejo's Claire Deatrick (nine blocks) for a 26-24 win to force game five.
"[Mission Viejo] played an amazing game and we made a few errors here and there," Horner said. "We did what we needed to do, it just wasn't enough."
"I am proud of the girls, they had a great year," Turner said. "It's too bad it ended so soon."