In one match, the Live Oak High girls volleyball team showed the impressive turnaround it had this season and how far it still has to go to become league champions.
The Acorns’ five-set loss to Independence High on Oct. 19 cost them a share of the Blossom Valley Athletic League West Valley Division championship and most likely a Central Coast Section playoff berth. However, coach Tait Rafat said he’s proud of the team, knowing it graduates just two seniors and will be well fortified to have another strong season next year.
“We have a big group of juniors so for the program, the future looks bright,” Rafat said. “It’s been a good run and the core of juniors, some of them didn’t really play much last season so it’s been a learning curve for them and their confidence has steadily risen.”
Coming off a two-win season last year, Live Oak finished 14-3 overall and 12-2 in league this season. The Acorns’ only two division defeats came to league champion Independence, the first meeting a four-set loss on Sept. 27.
However, it certainly looked as if Live Oak was going to win the rematch. After taking Game 1 rather handily, 25-13, the Acorns had a 17-11 lead in Game 2 and were seemingly on their way to taking a 2-0 lead.
However, a rash of errors, inconsistent passing and Independence’s propensity to play well out of system resulted in Live Oak losing the second set, 25-23. Even though the Acorns rebounded to win Game 3 in emphatic fashion, 25-6, they couldn’t finish and lost the fourth set 25-17 and fell 15-6 in the decisive fifth set.
“It was definitely a momentum-shifter (in Game 2),” Rafat said. “The second half of that second set was disappointing. I felt like we were on a roll and possibly even going 3-0 there. And then that momentum changed a bit. We had a good start in Game 3 and then we got a little tired.”
Even in defeat, Rafat said the match showed just how far the team has come.
“They (Independence) had to beat us,” Rafat said. “The last time we played them, we had so many errors they barely had to earn points. We didn’t win but we were better this time. We played hard and kept the match close.”
Ana Saulala had eight kills over the final three sets, and Anna Guenet had three over that same span. Not surprisingly, the team had its biggest success when it served well. Maya Rafat recorded seven service aces from Games 3-5, and Ella King had three in that time.
At different points in the match, the Acorns went on huge runs with Rafat, Saulala and King serving. But the difference in the match was the 76ers’ ability to win points out of system.
“Their out of system play is very, very good,” Rafat said. “They obviously trust each other and they never stop on the out of system balls. So balls you think are going down are still up and they keep playing and then they get a kill and so on. They turn those single points into mini runs and then into big runs because they also serve tough. And so we had a little trouble responding to that. Hats off to them.”
With just 10 players on their roster, the Acorns needed everyone to contribute. That included junior libero Chiara Rocchio and the only two seniors on the squad, Katia Vaillancourt and Stephanie Leonard.
“Our two seniors did a good job for us and Stephanie especially played a lot of quality minutes,” Rafat said. “And Katia was kind of brand new but had to be in there. She started all year for us because the bench isn’t that deep, and she did a good job as well.”
Outside of the two matches with Independence, the Acorns won 33 sets and dropped just one against the rest of the C-league West Valley Division foes. With a slew of key returners for next season, Live Oak will most likely get promoted to the B-league Santa Teresa Division for 2023.
Rafat would probably welcome that given the team didn’t receive much competition—with the exception of Independence—in the West Valley this season.
“Unfortunately, in our league there’s only a few teams that really push, and so we weren’t getting to play any long volleyball,” Rafat said. “So we haven’t seen a long game in a while, it gets metnally tiring and so those young kids are still learning how to battle through that adversity. But that’s part of the game and we’re getting there. There’s a lot to look forward to with this team.”
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]