Hillsdale volleyball takes control of Ocean Division

Terry Bernal/Daily Journal

There is plenty of excitement at Hillsdale surrounding a new tandem of freshman middle hitters who have reinvigorated the volleyball program. But in Thursday’s critical Peninsula Athletic League Ocean Division matchup with Westmoor, it was senior co-captains Camryn Yuen and Ju Ju Eng who brought home the win.

With the two teams entering play tied atop the PAL Ocean Division standings, the Hillsdale Knights (6-0 PAL Ocean, 7-3 overall) scored their biggest victory of the year, downing Westmoor 28-26, 25-12, 16-25, 25-15 to take sole possession of first place.

Hillsdale’s freshman middles paced the attack, with Audrey Gilbert scoring a match-high 11 kills and Alexandra Sprowls adding nine. After a Game 3 loss, though, Eng got cooking from the service line, scoring three of her match-high seven aces in the final set. Yuen, who totaled six kills in the match, saved four kills for Game 4.

“I think I just woke up a little bit after we lost that one,” Yuen said.

It was a tough matchup for Westmoor (5-1, 12-7) as the Rams were without senior setter Megan Ho for the second time in their last three matches. The four-year varsity senior injured an ankle two weeks ago, and sat out last Thursday’s match with Mills. She played Tuesday in a sweep of Sequoia, but reinjured the ankle and was unable to play Thursday.

The Rams, at times, were able to hang with Hillsdale’s multi-tiered attack. Westmoor junior Natahsa Siapno, sophomore libero Amanda Lao and recent call-up Kaitlyn Jew — a freshman setter playing in her first varsity match — each flashed brilliant defense.

“I think we did fairly well with all the different adjustments,” Westmoor head coach Rex Mauga-Head said. “It’s little steps in case Megan doesn’t come back now.”

In the end, though, Hillsdale’s front-row presence overwhelmed the vaunted Westmoor defense.

“I think they’re definitely the strongest team,” Yuen said. “We lost to them last year. So there was a lot of pressure coming into this one.”

The best display of both teams’ strengths came near the end of the first set. With Gilbert in the midst of a monster display at middle net, Lao produced the defensive play of the match by laying out for a pancake dig. Gilbert came right back over the top with a crusher through the middle, but Siapno went into a knee slide to dig it. Hillsdale followed with one of its 15 unforced errors in the set to tie it 19-19.

“It gets us really hyped,” Siapno said of Lao’s initial dig to sustain the rally. “When [Lao] gets a pancake like that, it gets us up for the game and makes us want to push for the win.”

The lead changed four times from that point.

Westmoor senior Christina Chin — who paced the Rams with nine kills and five blocks — put down an overpass to give the Rams a 21-20 advantage. But the Knights rallied with Gilbert responding off an overpass to score her fifth set kill to swing the lead to Hillsdale 22-21. The Knights earned set point at 24-23, but committed an array of errors to swing Westmoor into a 26-25 lead. The Rams, though, committed an error; Sprowls scored off middle; then Westmoor committed its 12th unforced error of the set to end it.

Eng sparked a decisive Game 2 victory with back-to-back aces early on to go up 3-1. Hillsdale never relinquished the lead from there, holding on 8-7 at one point, but then going on a six-point run to take control.

In Game 3, Westmoor responded with an early burst. Chin proved a force at the net, containing the outside attacks of junior McKenna Anderson and Leiana Cassidy, though to two would finish with seven match kills apiece. Chin, though, gave the Rams a fighting chance with three of her six match blocks in the third set.

“That’s typical Tina right there,” Siapno said. “She has hops.”

In Game 4, Eng stepped to the service line to open with a 3-point run. She went on to score three aces in the set. Yuen added an ace while five different Knights scored kills, led by Yuen’s four.

“We’re connecting so well,” Eng said. “Especially with our freshmen middles. They blended in right away … and now we gel well on and off the court.”

The influx of the freshman tandem of Gilbert and Sprowls came as no surprise to Hillsdale head coach Dwight Crump, who coaches at the same Red Rock Volleyball Club where the two play. Crump coached the 15U team last year, one age level above Gilbert and Sprowls. But they were impossible to ignore.

When asked to look into the crystal ball of what’s to come for Hillsdale volleyball in the three seasons to follow, as Gilbert and Sprowls — both already listing at 5-11 — develop, Crump was unabashedly optimistic.

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