The match has been circled on calendars all over town since the Moore League girls’ volleyball schedule dropped: Long Beach Poly and Lakewood. The two best programs in the league went toe to toe on Wednesday afternoon in the Ron Palmer Pavilion at Poly, with the Jackrabbits prevailing in a five-set classic, 25-20, 25-27, 25-21, 20-25, 15-12.
While technically just a first-round league match, the contest featured all the drama of a Greek epic. Lakewood coach Mike Wadley woke up at 3:40 in the morning ready to go; Poly assistant coach Keli Pula visited his father’s memorial to help center himself.
“Mike and I were joking, ‘Happy Poly Lakewood match,’ it’s like Christmas,” said Poly coach Leland McGrath. “People get here early, the stands are packed, I don’t have to convince anyone to help set up.”
Players on both teams admitted they’d been looking forward to the match for months.
“Allanah (Cutler) and I have been texting about it all summer, ‘September 12th, September 12th,’” said Poly setter Liz Schuster.
Cutler and Schuster were the perfect senior leaders for Poly, as Cutler piled up 27 kills, 9 digs, 5 blocks, and 2 aces in the win. Schuster had 50 assists and 18 digs.
McGrath and Wadley have a recent gameday tradition of sitting together and watching the lower level match that’s played before the varsity match. It’s a way of calming themselves down before the match begins and the gym hits a fever pitch, but also a way of fostering the improved sportsmanship of the rivalry, which got ugly at times several years back, with fans yelling at each other and the athletes.
“It’s nuts, and it’s generations of nuts,” said McGrath. “We have grandmas in the stands going crazy. I love that the sportsmanship has gotten better.”
“I have a lot of love and respect for him and his program,” said Wadley. “And I know the same from them to us. It makes it a lot better because it’s a supportive environment for the kids.”
The stands were full of loud and rowdy fans that included most of Poly’s football team for the later sets.
“It’s the kind of environment you dream about playing in,” said Cutler.
Adding to the crazy atmosphere Wednesday was the presence of Laura Williams on the Lakewood bench; the younger sister of Moore League Player of the Year Kalyah Williams, who was a three-year star for Poly before signing with Washington State. Laura had planned to go to Poly but was enrolled at Lakewood and lost an appeal to switch schools; as of a few weeks ago, she was still sitting behind Poly’s bench in street clothes. She played in Lakewood’s rotation and notched three kills.
For Poly it was Onye Ofoegbue, a UC Irvine commit and star middle blocker who made her first appearance for the Jackrabbits this season. Ofoegbue entered the match in the fifth set and was an immediate blocking presence; she recorded just one kill but forced the Lancers’ hitters to change things up at the net.
Poly came out in the first set and looked strong, taking a 14-9 lead and staying in front the rest of the way. Cutler had 12 kills in the first frame as Schuster leaned on her fellow senior early and often.
In the second, Lakewood seniors Julia Crawford and Moni Vivao took over, as Crawford put up five kills and a block. Lakewood trailed 19-16 late in the frame before a service run from Karysma Aualiita, the Lancers libero who had 28 digs. Aualiita’s service run of four points included a pair of aces. Lakewood took a 24-21 lead on two aces from Alwen Pila but then saw Poly deuce the score on a pair of kills from Cutler. The Lancers got a kill from Crawford and an ace from Roxii Robinson to seal it.
Poly won the third set behind big swings from Cutler and freshman Adonia Faumuina, as well as four kills from Taylor Walker. With the seesaw nature of the match and the crowd in full throat, the Lancers seemed destined to win the fourth set, and they did thanks to three Crawford kills to close it out.
In the fifth, Ofoegbue’s presence in the middle changed the match for Poly, as she forced Lakewood to swing around her. Poly built a 6-2 lead in the fifth set after a dump by Schuster, but Lakewood pulled back to within two at 10-8 after a kill by Saeedah Ali. Cutler put the pedal to the metal with four straight kills, then closed it out with match point.
Vivao led Lakewood with 53 assists, while Crawford finished 30 kills and 15 digs.
The good news for Long Beach volleyball fans? The teams will play again at Lakewood on October 9–the coaches, players and fans already have it circled.