Long Poet rallies result in close Leopard loss

La Verne junior right side Ayana Mier (2) and junior middle blocker Kari Esseff (18) attempt to block an attack by Chapman outside hitter Leighton Gagnon (11) while senior setter/right side Sophie Srivastava (14) and senior outside hitter Erika Wiles (5) look on with anticipation. The Leopards would be swept by the Panthers in straight sets Oct. 15 at the Frantz Athletic Court. / photo by Jingyao Liang
La Verne junior right side Ayana Mier (2) and junior middle blocker Kari Esseff (18) attempt to block an attack by Chapman outside hitter Leighton Gagnon (11) while senior setter/right side Sophie Srivastava (14) and senior outside hitter Erika Wiles (5) look on with anticipation. The Leopards would be swept by the Panthers in straight sets Oct. 15 at the Frantz Athletic Court. / photo by Jingyao Liang

Jaydelle Herbert
Staff Writer

The Leopards fought Whittier to the end of the fifth set Oct. 19 at Frantz Athletic Court, but the women’s volleyball team was defeated by two points in the last set to drop the match, 3-2.

Junior setter Emily Heldenbrand said her team fighting through four sets to play in the fifth set shows how unpredictable the outcome of games are.

“The fifth set showed what volleyball is because any team can be up and have a lead, but the other team can always come back,” Heldenbrand said.

Since Whittier came into the game with a loss against La Verne earlier in Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference play, the Poets were ready to battle the Leopards and take it to the last few points of the game.

The rivalry matchup started with loud crowds and bench energy from both sides as the score was tied 20 different times throughout the first set. 

Junior opposite and outside hitter Ayana Mier said when she is on the court she usually blocks out the noise, but during this game she noticed how the excitement boosted up the team’s energy.

“When you are on the court, I don’t hear the crowd or the bench,” Mier said. “But especially the first set and even throughout the whole game you can definitely feel the energy and hear the noise.”

In the first set, long rallies pushed the Leopards and the Poets to dig deep to tie the score at 24 after Mier executed a quick kill in the Poets’ back row. But after another long rally where the Leopards kept the ball in play, it ended in the Poets’ favor when La Verne suffered an attack error.

The last point of the game ended with the Poets’ fast tip to the middle of the court. The Poets won the first set, 26-24.

“We talked about how it was a few missed serves, miscommunication, and a few touches off of the block that cost us the first set,” Mier said. “If some of those touches would have turned into blocks, it would have been a completely different game.”

In the second set, the Leopards’ tight saves gave freshman outside hitter Noelani Soma the opportunity to score a kill on the Poets’ back row and to tie the score at 6. Soma’s kill gave La Verne the momentum to go on a three-point scoring run and force the Poets to take a timeout. The Poets’ timeout gave the Leopards the energy they needed to maintain an 11-point lead, their largest of the game.

Junior middle blocker Kari Esseff said when the score was 22-11, it made her team feel confident in their abilities as a team. 

“We had to push even harder because we knew they were going to fight back,” Esseff said. “But it was a huge accomplishment to get such a high lead on that team.”

The Leopards stole a win from the Poets in the second set, 25-16. 

During the third set, Heldenbrand switched from setter to outside hitter to help La Verne get an early four-point lead on Whittier after her quick kill, 10-6. Heldenbrand executed five of her 12 kills during the third set.

“I don’t keep track of my stats, but it feels nice because I don’t get the opportunity to hit all the time,” Heldenbrand said.

After the Leopards took their first timeout of the set, the Poets’ kills helped them come back and trail the Leopards by one point.

“It’s hard to always be 100% accurate when it comes to blocking because sometimes it’s hard to read their hitters,” Heldenbrand said. “Their hitters are smart and know to aim for our hands.”

Junior middle blocker Jasmine Chandler’s right hook kills down the middle of the court continued to catch the Poets off guard through the third set.

“I was very competitive playing in this game,” Chandler said. “I had a friend on the other team and also their coach used to be my club coach. I really wanted to beat them.” 

The third set became survival of the fittest when the score was tied at 24 and 25 after both teams suffered attack errors and ball handling errors. But the Poets’ back-to-back errors handed the Leopards a win, 27-25. 

The Leopards came into the fourth set hyped after their back-to-back wins. The team dominated in the beginning of the set with Mier’s and Chandler’s kills after a long rally and a strong block against Poets’ junior outside hitter Kaitlin Bullock’s hit. This helped the Leopards earn a three-point lead against the Poets. 

Mier executed five of her 17 kills in the fourth set, which is the second-most kills she has had this season.

“I’m glad I was able to help my team out by getting those kills,” Mier said. “It helped with the morale and energy for my team.”

The Leopards started losing focus when the Poets’ went on two three-point scoring runs. While Esseff was defending in the back row, the Poets’ maintained their lead when Poets’ senior outside hitter Katelyn Popoff’s kill resulted in the ball hitting Esseff’s face. Esseff left the court but was able to go back into the game during the team’s next rotation.

“It fueled me even more to play harder and pick up my game against Whittier to prove that the hit didn’t affect me at all,” Esseff said.

The Leopards closed the gap with the Poets’ six-point lead to be down by only two points, 23-21. But the Leopards’ could not save Poets’ freshman middle blocker Analise Kusleika’s fast kill and keep the ball alive for another point.

“When we had that three-point lead on Whittier, we should have been able to maintain that lead and we should’ve been able to push through,” Heldenbrand said. “But it’s really draining mentally and emotionally for our team because we simply lost focus and we had a little freak out moment, which cost us the set.”

The Poets won the fourth set, 25-21, and the Leopards started the fifth set with a lead. Long rallies took a toll on both teams, which made the Poets take a timeout.

“Long rallies can determine who will win a game because it can raise one team’s energy and decrease the other team’s energy,” Heldenbrand said.

The Leopards were not going to let the Poets beat them easily without putting up a fight. The team tied the score six times in hopes of winning the last set. But another kill by Poets’ outside hitter Bullock and a ball handling error by the Leopards gave the Poets a win in the fifth set, 17-15.

“When we lost by those two points it was devastating, but it also was refreshing to see the fight in my team,” Heldenbrand said. “Even though we lost, it was a hell of a fight that we had. It was good volleyball from both sides.”

Esseff said there were a few key mistakes the team made during the fourth and fifth set.

“Missed serves as well as blocking errors were a big factor in what we could have controlled better throughout the game,” Esseff said.

The loss was part a four-game losing streak for the Leopards, which also included losses to Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, Chapman, Pomona-Pitzer and Cal Lutheran. They finally broke the streak Tuesday with a 3-1 win over Caltech.

La Verne now has an overall record of 8-13 and 4-10 in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. They are tied for seventh in the SCIAC standings.

“Our main struggle since the beginning of the game is that we weren’t there mentally and going through the emotions of the game,” Chandler said. “We are fixing it now and are really late on fixing that problem. But we need to focus on the game, be mentally checked into the game, and have our basic skills down for our last games.”

The Leopards will travel to Redlands to face the Bulldogs at 7 p.m. Friday and then close out the season by hosting Occidental at 2 p.m. Saturday. 

Jaydelle Herbert can be reached at jaydelle.herbert@laverne.edu.

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