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SUBURBAN LEAGUE GIRLS VOLLEYBALL:  Amalu, Bales, Okoli lead Cerritos in five-set thriller at Norwalk, stay close to first place


By Loren Kopff


The Cerritos girls volleyball team knows a little something about knocking off defending Suburban League champions. In the past, the Lady Dons have taken care of Mayfair a year after the Monsoons won the league title and this past Tuesday afternoon, they did it again, but against Norwalk.

Backed by a solid performance from senior middle blockers Crystal Amalu, Kaitlyn Bales, and sophomore middle blocker Ioefoma Okoli, the Lady Dons improved to 29-4 against Norwalk since 1998 with a 25-22, 15-25, 23-25, 25-14, 15-13 road win. Last season, Cerritos gave the Lady Lancers their lone league loss, which was a five-set victory at Cerritos.

But what made this one just as important was the fact that both teams had identical 2-1 league marks with Cerritos coming off a three-set loss to first place and undefeated La Mirada five days prior.

“Any game against Norwalk, against the defending champions, is important,” said Cerritos head coach David Cuthbert. “Anytime we come here, it’s a big game for us.”

“Outside of last year when we had that big home game and we won in five, we knew it was going to be a big rivalry,” Bales said. “We just knew we had to start strong from the get-go and jump on them right away.”

Cerritos indeed did off to a good start, scoring the first six points of the match thanks to three kills from Bales and an ace from junior outside hitter Lauren Oh, a transfer from Whitney who was making her Cerritos debut. With Norwalk leading 14-13, Bales put down a kill and from there, Oh served seven straight points as she began the second rotation. But the Lady Lancers battled back and trailed by two points after an ace from sophomore defensive specialist Paola Nava before Okoli’s second kill ended the set.

After Norwalk (8-7 overall, 2-2 in league) turned a 14-10 lead into a 22-10 advantage behind three aces from junior libero Kathleen Perez in the second set, Cerritos was destined to take the third set. The Lady Dons (6-9, 3-1) had rallied from deficits of 12-8 and 15-11 to pull within a point following three straight kills from Okoli, the last being a tip in front of Norwalk senior middle blocker Jazmin Guzman.

Moments later, Cerritos took a 19-18 lead on a kill from Oh and when Bales deposited an ace right at the center back line, the visitors had a 23-21 lead. But a net violation and four straight points served by junior setter Brenda Hernandez gave Norwalk the momentum.

“You can’t teach it; you just have to have kids who have experience,” Cuthbert said of not being able to finish off sets. “This is really the first close game we’ve had all year. We’ve won easily and we’ve lost badly. It was really important for us to get out in a close game.”

“Even though we won the first set, they had the momentum towards the end,” Bales said. “It just took a little bit longer for the momentum to switch back to our side so that we could get going again.”

Cerritos was able to turn it around in the fourth set, going wire to wire and building an early 9-2 lead. Bales would have just two kills in the set, but she added a block and an ace for two more points. Okoli had two kills in the set as well, but ended the set with a block of Guzman.

In the fifth and deciding set, Cerritos had leads of 3-1, 6-3, 9-4 and 12-7 before Norwalk made a late push to make things interesting.

Two kills from Guzman and an ace from Hernandez made it 12-10. The 10th kill from Amalu put Cerritos two points away from the win for the third time in the match. But a Guzman kill, followed by a pair of aces from Bustos tied the set. Following a Cerritos timeout, Bales posted her 16th and final kill. Then a serve from Amalu was returned long.

“We need to work on that,” Bales said of holding onto leads. “If there’s an error, we have to bounce back. Maybe we dwell on it a little bit. But that’s something we’re working on and we’re definitely getting better at as we play through the season.”

Bales has emerged as one of the quietest leaders you’ll find on any team. While most go-to players will pump their fists or scream after every kill or block, Bales just nonchalantly goes about her business, keeping it more on the down to earth side. Either way, she has already proven herself as one of the top players in the league this season.

“I think I’m a little bit of a different kind of leader,” Bales said. “I’m not the crazy one who is going to get crazy [after each kill]. But I try to encourage my teammates and get them going.”

“Everyone leads in different ways,” Cuthbert says. “She’s just not going to be [a cheerleader]. That’s not her. She’s just going to do her thing and lead by example. She served tough for us, hit and blocked. You can’t ask anything more from her.”

Okoli also had 16 kills while senior middle blocker Brittney Freeman quietly added nine kills and Oh chipped in with eight kills. Oh also led Cerritos with five aces.

“Lauren was a big spot for us,” Cuthbert said. “She came in and gave us some service aces, solidified our pass a little bit and was effective offensively. She was big for us.”

Norwalk was led by Guzman, who posted 24 kills and has been consistent in the three league matches she has played in since returning from an injury on Sept. 12 against California. Sophomore outside hitter Athena Sio had eight kills while senior middle blocker Megan Nolasco and sophomore outside hitter Ashley Whittall each added seven kills. Bustos led all players with half a dozen aces.

“She’s one of the premier hitters in our league and she showed it again,” Cuthbert said of Guzman. “Even though we were keyed in and tried to pin solid blocks against her, she still got her kills. She’s always going to be tough to stop.”

Cerritos hosted John Glenn on Oct. 9 and will wrap up the first round of league action on Tuesday with a home meeting against Mayfair, which is 4-1 in league play. On Thursday, the Lady Dons will entertain Artesia. Norwalk dropped to the middle of the league but is very much in contention for a league title. The Lady Lancers visited winless Bellflower on Oct. 9 and will travel to undefeated La Mirada on Tuesday before going to the other side of town to face John Glenn on Thursday. But, it’s clear that the league is still up for grabs between Cerritos, La Mirada, Mayfair and Norwalk,

“It does look like it’s going to be that way,” Cuthbert said. “Home or away, against any of those teams, those wins are a big win for us. I’m not going to say this is going to be the most important game because when we play Mayfair on their home court or when we bring [Norwalk] back to our home court, it’s going to be the same again. I’m not for the mindset of singling out games. We have a lot of big games.”

“It’s definitely going to be tight,” Bales said. “Every game is going to be a challenge for all four teams when they play each other. I think this momentum will carry into every game. We set a standard for us, now. We don’t expect us to play any lower than we played today. If we play this way against La Mirada, we’ll stand a good chance [of a win]. So, I look forward to playing them again.”



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