Heralds go out swinging, fall in close match to Westminster in first round
by Nathan Percy
La Habra Journal
The Whittier Christian volleyball team had bounced back from a 2-0 deficit and seemingly had all the momentum heading into a deciding Game 5 against Westminster in the first round of the CIF-SS Division 3 playoffs.
Sparked by middle blocker Branden Osborn, the Heralds were coming off their most decisive game win, tying up the match by taking the fourth game 25-10.
However, Westminster went back to its roots, using floor coverage followed by its speed to cause fits for the Heralds’ front line as outside hitter Minh Nguyen led the host Lions to a 15-7 win in Game 5 to down the Heralds, 3-2 (25-18, 25-23, 17-25, 10-25, 15-7), at Westminster High.
“When we came in, we knew that [Nguyen] was their go-to guy, so we tried to set up the block, pinching over a little bit on that left side, but we couldn’t close it early,” said Chris Duran, Whittier Christian head coach. “I think in that fifth game, we just tightened up a little bit. I don’t know if that was the anticipation or urgency of what that game meant, but we just couldn’t pull it out. We gave some points away and when you do that, it’s always tough to win. They’re a great passing team and a great defensive team, which took us out of rhythm.”
Going into the matchup, the Heralds had a clear-cut size advantage on paper, but the Lions (15-5-1) countered with their speed and coverage as well as the strength of Nguyen, who was constantly on the attack in the first two games.
Despite the Heralds’ front line of 6-foot-8 Stephen Nolin, 6-foot-6 Jimmy West and 6-foot-5 Shawn Stolt, the 5-foot-8 Nguyen was the Lions’ go to attacker and he rifled plenty of shots through the block.
“Having the offensive speed was a good way of countering [their front line],” said Kirk Arradaza, Westminster head coach. “Yeah, they had the height, yeah they had power, but we wanted to match it with speed and second opportunities.”
While the Heralds had no answer for Nguyen early, the team adjusted well in the third and fourth games, changing up the middle blockers and putting in Osborn, who was more than ready for the task.
A major factor in the fourth game, Osborn sparked the Heralds with four kills and two blocks for points as Whittier Christian kept its foot on the gas pedal and sped to a Game 4 win.
“We became more aware of the things we needed to do and we limited our mistakes, we played really well,” Duran said. “We made the adjustment to put in Branden in Game 3 and he’s a playmaker. He’s always ready to go, he’s so versatile and athletic that we have options with him. He capitalized and maximized his potential and he made it happen for us. It helped change the momentum.”
The third game was all about offensive flow as setter Austin Tafoya connected with his hitters and picked up 13 assists to go along with one block for a point. Stolt picked up four kills in the set and the Heralds tallied four total points on the block.
Feeling in the moment, the Heralds easily carried that momentum into the fourth game.
However, after a long conversation, Westminster found a way to return to its early form, freeing up Nguyen for more big hits to help the Lions maintain an early lead.
“Throughout the season, emotion and motivation have been a key and something we want to control throughout the match,” Arradaza said. “In the third and fourth sets, their faces were a little down, so in the fifth set, we knew we needed to get our emotion up and use it in a positive way and get the game going. That’s pretty much what kicked it for us.”
Later in the set, a pair of crucial hitting errors by Nolin and a block that fell out of bounds spelled the end of what was a great season for the Heralds in Duran’s second year at the helm.
Whittier Christian finishes the year with a 19-9 overall record and will see five seniors graduate, all of them starters.
“It was a great season, we had a great group of guys, so many great personalities and it’s such a mixed breed,” Duran said. “They’ve been awesome. This being my second year, we wanted to put Whittier Chrsitian volleyball back on the map and we’ve made playoffs these last two years. We’re excited for the future, it’s tough to see the guys work so hard and for us to be right there, but we dug ourselves a hole early. We fought, but the other team came out on top.”