Lakewood Long Beach Poly Volleyball

Volleyball: Long Beach Poly Nabs Win Over Lakewood in Thriller

The562’s coverage of high school volleyball in 2023 is brought to you by the MLP’s Bay Area Breakers

The Long Beach Poly girls’ volleyball team hadn’t beaten Lakewood since 2019, and had in fact only taken one set off the Lancers in that time. First-year head coach Gerald Aquiningoc and his Jackrabbits were eager to show that they’ve turned a page this year, and they did just that with a statement win over Lakewood in a thriller at home. Poly trailed late in the third and fourth sets but rallied to win both in a 25-18, 16-25, 26-24, 25-22 victory.

“This is a big freaking thing for this program,” said Aquiningoc. “I was just telling them how proud of them I am right now. Because of how accepting and how coachable they are, and the sisterhood they show. This is huge. This is a great one, I want them to enjoy it. But we have some goals, and this group seems very hungry. So I’m excited to see where we go from here.”

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The Jackrabbits have been off to a great start this year but there’s a specific kind of pressure when Lakewood and Poly play each other. The two teams have won every Moore League title since 2011, and have had some absolute battles over the last decade. Both teams have a good mix of returning and fresh talent, and there’s no telling how a team comes through the crucible until they have to do it.

“We knew what to expect, but our athletes don’t always quite understand that,” said Lakewood coach Mike Wadley. “They’ve gotten better. Gerald’s done a really good job.”

Poly had great success after switching from a 5-1 to a 6-2, with their blocking defense helping to spur two late-set comebacks. They won the first set relatively easily and Lakewood won the second set relatively easily, with the Lancers led by San Jose State commit Jade Epps and Poly led by their star middles, Kristen Dear and Layla Moore. Dear had 10 kills, four blocks, and two aces while Moore added eight kills.

“I think this marks a turn in our program,” said Dear. “Gerald has been super motivated, he wants to win win win–he’s pulling the best game out of us. You can see the program changing, you can see the energy shifting. Today was just heart and grit. We’ve conditioned really hard together, that brought us together. That was our thing today–we’ve worked so hard for this, we can’t let it go to waste.”

Lakewood lost star freshman Lucky Fasavalu to injury, which spurred a lineup change to a group they hadn’t played together before. Nonetheless, they jumped out to a 20-16 and 22-19 lead in the third set, before Poly’s defense turned the tide. The Jackrabbits got a block from freshman Cedra Talaga and Dear, a big kill from Dear, and then a block by Josephine Gore to tie it at 23. Lala Hall’s kill gave Lakewood set point, but Poly scored on a double, a kill by Saniya Kimbrough, and a Lancer net violation to complete the comeback.

In the fourth set, Lakewood led 21-14 when Emma Holder stepped to the back line and served up a 6-0 service run that included an ace and two kills by Telaga. After a kill by Epps put Lakewood up 22-20, it seemed like they might shake the Jackrabbits off and force a fifth set. But Poly dug deep and got a kill from Telaga, and then back-to-back aces from Georgetown-bound libero Taylor Mercado that gave them the lead. Dear had her 10th kill, and then they got a block from Kimbrough to win it.

“This was a gritty one, we grinded that one out,” said Aquiningoc. “We didn’t play our best, we didn’t really execute our gameplan. But we were able to serve them really tough and grind it out.”

For Poly (8-2, 2-0), there’s real reason to see this as a start of a turning point. Their first win over the Lancers in four years came on the same day as the new CIF-SS rankings put them at No. 3 in Division 3. The Jackrabbits were led by Dear’s big night plus 12 kills from the freshman Telaga, nine from Emma Holder, and seven from Kimbrough. Poly setters Josephine Gore and Hannah Ballungay spread the ball around well and kept Lakewood’s block guessing.

For the Lancers, it’s a wakeup call about killer instinct, something Wadley said he knew his team needed work on.

“Up in the third set, up 21-14 in the fourth set, we’ve got to win those,” he said. “We get a lead and back off. We did the same thing in other matches this year. I’m not discouraged by it, though. We’re playing better, we’re getting the team concept better. We’re just not getting that result that we want right now.”

Lakewood was led by Epps’ 14 kills and Hall’s nine, with Zaria Thornton adding eight in the middle. Nyla Hankins, Summer Eleasaro and Epps all had two aces apiece, and Bronwyn Nihipali had 18 digs.

VIDEO: Long Beach Poly vs Lakewood Volleyball
PHOTOS: Long Beach Poly vs Lakewood Volleyball
Mike Guardabascio
An LBC native, Mike Guardabascio has been covering Long Beach sports professionally for 13 years, with his work published in dozens of Southern California magazines and newspapers. He's won numerous awards for his writing as well as the CIF Southern Section’s Champion For Character Award, and is the author of three books about Long Beach history.