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Aliso Niguel volleyball completes miraculous comeback to advance to CIF-SS semifinals

Wolverines take down Laguna Beach despite losing the first two sets 

Aliso Niguel junior outside hitter Eva Travis spikes the ball through Laguna Beach's Jacqueline Witteman (8) and Natalia Hagopian (6) during a CIF-Southern Section quarterfinal volleyball match in Aliso Viejo, Oct. 27, 2021. Aliso Niguel won the match in five sets. (Ryan Kuhn, SOCoPrepSports.com)

ALISO VIEJO —  Aliso Niguel’s volleyball coach Richie Whiting has seen plenty of volleyball in her lifetime.

She has been a coach for the last 24 years.

But she had never seen anything like what happened on Wednesday night. 

She stood from her bench and watched her team rally back after being down two sets in the CIF-Southern Section Division II quarterfinals against Laguna Beach.

The Wolverines won in five sets, 17-25, 21-25, 25-17, 25-21, 15-10.

“There are too many emotions,” Whiting said afterwards. “This match was just unreal.”

The Wolverines were forced to make a change before the match even began as their starting setter, Nicole Feliciano, suffered back spasms during warmups and was unable to complete. 

It didn’t take long for Laguna Beach to take advantage. 

The Breakers went on a 7-1 run that saw scores from Sofia Reavis, Sara Johnson and Sydney Freeman. 

Aliso Niguel senior setter Shelby McElroy got the news that she would be starting just minutes before the match started and tried to quickly create some chemistry with her offense.

“It was a hard position to be in,” McElroy said. “I’ve played with these girls for four years so I really had to rely on them. As a setter, you are kind of the quarterback so it was my job to find that chemistry.”

But Laguna Beach seemed to have an answer every time Aliso Niguel created momentum. The Breakers finished the first set with five straight points to win 25-17.

The Breakers momentum picked up even more in the second set as they jumped out to a 14-9 lead.

Aliso Niguel bounced back and even took the lead when libero Danet Whiting scored an ace but the Breakers capitalized on mistakes. Natalia Hagopian came away with two more scores and Laguna Beach took the second set, 25-21.

The Wolverines had to find some chemistry. They just didn’t think it would come this late. 

The third set started much like the first two. 

Laguna Beach jumped out to an early lead and after blocks by Hagopian and Jacquelyn Wittleman held a 10-7 lead.

It was then that Whiting came to her team with a message. 

“It came down to them and how they wanted their last memory this season,” Richie Whiting said. “I just wanted them to go out and have fun and start playing our volleyball.”

The advice started to work and the tides began to change. 

Outside hitter Kendra Duffey and opposite Madyson Smith and came together to score on blocks to take a 16-13 lead and then Duffey finished the set scoring six of her team’s final seven points to claim a 25-17 victory. 

Buy the fourth set Aliso Niguel had all the momentum.

Laguna Beach tried to seal the match when it took a 13-11 lead midway through the set but the Wolverines quickly stopped the threat and took advantage of six errors to win 25-21. 

“I started hitting down the line,” Duffey said. “I wanted to find that sweet spot.”

Aliso Niguel played just one five-set match all season. It was a loss to San Clemente. 

History would not repeat itself. 

The fifth set remained close through the first seven points until Aliso Niguel’s Eva Travis came though with two straight kills.

Laguna Beach tried to shift the momentum by taking two straight timeouts but, it wasn’t long before the crowd rushed the court and celebrated its trip to the semifinals. 

Duffey and Travis each finished the game with a team-high 15 kills.

And McElroy, she had her senior moment, starting her first intense playoff game. 

Aliso Niguel will now host La Salle in the Division 2 Semifinal this Saturday. The winner will face the winner of Huntington Beach/Palos Verdes in the finals on Nov. 6.

“It’s all about belief and trust,” Duffey said. “We can do this.”

Other local scores

Division 3: Mission Viejo def. Newport Harbor, 25-18, 25-14, 17-25, 22-25, 15-13

Division 3: Jserra def. Upland, 25-17, 26-24, 26-24

Division 3: El Toro def. Santiago/Corona, 19-25, 25-21, 25-19, 27-25

Division 7: Capistrano Valley Christian def. Coachella Valley, 25-16, 25-18, 25-14.

CIF-SS Semifinal schedule

Games on Saturday at 6 p.m.

Division 2: Aliso Niguel vs. La Salle

Division 3: Mission Viejo vs. El Toro

Division 3: JSerra vs. Etiwanda

Division 7: Capo Valley Christian vs. Hillcrest

ANHS VS. LBHS VOLLEYBALL 2
Aliso Niguel senior outside hitter Kendra Duffey spikes the ball pas Laguna Beach's Sara Johnson (22) and Natalia Hagopian (6) during a CIF-Southern Section Division 2 quarterfinal game in Aliso Viejo, Oct. 27, 2021. Aliso Niguel won the game in five sets. (Ryan Kuhn, SOCoPrepSports.com)
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Born and raised in Dana Point, Ryan went to Dana Hills High School. He graduated from Sacramento State University in 2014 with a BA in Journalism. Throughout his career as a sports journalist, he has covered high schools, colleges, and professional teams. After working for multiple newspapers in as many states, he came to the conclusion that what he really wanted was to make sure the high schools in his hometown area got the sports coverage they deserved. Follow him on Twitter @rskuhn

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