VolleyballMag.com contributor Chris Tobolski went to last Thursday’s early season matchup between two of the top prep teams in the nation. His recap of Southern California powers Redondo Union vs. Mater Dei:
The question heading into one of the biggest high school clashes of the young season was simple.
How would second-ranked Redondo Union contend with No. 4 Mater Dei, considering the absence of junior setter Kami Miner, who was playing with the USA youth national team in Egypt?
Redondo Union was down 2-0 and staring at a 24-22 deficit in the third set, which it came back to win.
The air conditioning was broken in the gym, the sides continually went to the towel to wipe wet spots on the court as the match wore on, and Mater Dei (3-1) eventually paid the price for those earlier missed opportunities.
Finally, Redondo Union (14-0) made its comeback official after, ironically, not sweating out the final set so much and completing its victory in style, 24-26, 22-25, 29-27, 25-20, 15-8. Here are some observations:
1. Spotlight on Nalani Iosia — Iosia is headed to Texas next season as arguably the top incoming libero in the country. But with Miner missing, Iosia was given the setting duties. Iosia grew up setting — her older sister Norene is at Hawai’i — however she switched to libero as a sophomore when Miner arrived at the school.
Redondo was up 24-22 in the first set before Mater Dei scored four straight to reverse course. After losing the second set and down 9-2 in the third, Redondo coach Tommy Chaffins called a timeout. The Sea Hawks employed a different strategy, moving to a 6-2 with UCLA senior beach commit Caitlyn Kyle.
“We didn’t have anything to risk here,” said Chaffins, who said he thought about making the change after losing the second set but decided to ride it out.
That was until falling behind 9-2, of course. It wasn’t Iosia’s hitting that paid off right away. Instead, as it was all night, her serve was dangerous. Two aces helped close the gap to 12-9. Iosia’s first kill as a hitter came later and pulled Redondo to 18-16. After Mater Dei hit out on its first two match points, it was Iosia who saved the third by tooling the block from the right side for 25-all. Middle Jody Smith scored on a slide off the block to put Redondo up 28-27 moments later. That was key because it sent Iosia to the service line. Ace. Set over.
And then there was the defense.
Redondo was already in control of the final set when she made her best play of the night, keeping the ball alive for libero Ava Kirunchyk to chase down and the play eventually led to a huge block from Smith for a 12-6 lead.
“To be exceptional at one of those things is great,” said Chaffins of Iosia’s serving, defense and setting. “She’s exceptional at all three.”
2. Making the move — Though Redondo has been among the top programs in the country for the past decade, Chaffins wouldn’t have always been able to do what he did midway through Thursday’s outing.
“Some years I feel you have seven, eight girls and that’s who you go with,” he said.
The difference this year comes in the depth. Not only did Chaffins go to the 6-2, he inserted senior outside Lauren Osborne. She helped sparked the third set turnaround, delivering a pair of kills as the Sea Hawks pulled even at 13 all. Her ace later on cut it to 18-17.
“Caitlyn Kyle and Lauren Osborne coming off the bench was key,” Chaffins said. “We talk about our depth and it’s just not talk. It’s legit. Lauren comes off the bench and makes some plays and helps settle us down. Caitlyn comes in setting the ball and is giving them a different look.”
3. Serving notice — There weren’t any club contests from this past season that featured the booming that took place during Thursday’s high school bash between Mater Dei and Redondo. The Sea Hawks had not only Iosia, but freshman outside Mele Corral-Blagojevich. She served three aces in a row at the start of the match, putting Redondo up quickly at 4-0. Between Iosia and Corral-Blagojevich, it wasn’t just the aces that helped doomed Mater Dei. There were a fair share of overpasses off their serves that Redondo converted as well. The last was put down by Smith, part of a 6-0 run that had Redondo up 13-6 in the fifth set. Mater Dei countered with senior setter Mia Tuaniga and her big jump top-spinner. Tuaniga is the sister of Long Beach State All-American setter Josh Tuaniga.
That Redondo can score from the service line is key. If there is one area of concern for the Sea Hawks, it could be on the outside, even with Corral-Blagojevich (match-high 17 kills), given she’s still a freshman and is taking on a big role. There’ll be some growing pains for sure, but Redondo can make up for that with free and easy points from the line. That’s a huge strength on Redondo’s side.
“Yeah, it obviously challenges you,” Mater Dei coach Dan O’Dell said of Redondo’s two big servers.
4. In the middle — Mater Dei’s biggest advantage appeared to be with senior Meg Brown in the middle but it was Redondo’s middles in Smith and Jesse Szymanski that gave Redondo a ton of contributions. Smith and Szymanski’s block bothered Mater Dei enough all match, but it was Corral-Blagjevich’s stuff followed by another from Smith that boosted Redondo in the fifth set. A 6-1 start from the Sea Hawks tightened up at 7-6. Those two blocks made it 9-6. Then Corral-Blagjevich’s ace pushed it to 10-6. As for Mater Dei and Brown, it took too long for it to start clicking. Brown finished with 13 kills, four coming in the fifth set after Mater Dei was down 6-1. That means there with nine kills in the previous four sets. Brown finished with 13 kills on 27 swings.
“They did a good job of doubling her early on,” O’Dell said. “There were some misconnections between our middles tonight. There were so many tips that we don’t normally do and we started to lose a little confidence in the offense and things started slowing down.”
5. Closing thoughts. On one hand, it could have been a sweep for Mater Dei. Just as easily Redondo could have taken the opening set. In other words, it was volleyball. It’s also early for Mater Dei, playing just its fourth match. Redondo captured the Ann Kang Invitational last month and has nearly four times as many matches in as the Monarchs. We know both teams are going to be better by the end of the season. We also know Redondo is getting back Miner and will shift Iosia to libero. That means Redondo is going to be better defensively. Not only with Iosia at libero, but Miner putting up a bigger block on the right. The victory was also one Redondo is going to draw on for the rest of the season. Down a player like Miner and trailing 2-0, Redondo fought back. If that’s not a confidence-booster, no victory is.
Mater Dei returned three starters in Brown, Tuaniga and senior outside Reagan Merk. Merk (16 kills) and junior Zaria Henderson (14 kills) gave Mater Dei the edge on the outside and they’ll be even better when Mater Dei gets Brown going more in the middle to help open things up. As much as anything, it looked like the proverbial wind left Mater Dei’s sails after failing to close out the third set and the Monarchs chased Redondo the rest of the way.
In Thursday’s night view, winning would have been the best thing. In the overall season picture, losing a match like that could serve a greater purpose. Mater Dei’s veteran group last year was great at moving on after any set loss. It’ll do good for this year’s bunch to learn how to bounce back from something like that.
Though four matches in, there has been a bright spot for Mater Dei in sophomore Jordyn Schilling taking on the libero role. Schilling started the year fighting for the other outside spot with Henderson and played the first match as a DS before switching jerseys for the second match of the year. Schilling posted 27 digs Thursday night.
“I don’t think we ran out of steam, we just stopped playing smart volleyball,” O’Dell said of the team’s first loss of the year. “We made so many errors. When we did get a good pass on their jump servers we made an error. I think we got tense and it was frustrating to see us play like that.”
These teams continue to play top-level opponents.
This past weekend, Redondo Union won in four against nationally-ranked Cathedral Catholic this past weekend.
Looking ahead, Mater Dei goes to top-ranked Assumption in Louisville Thursday. The sides will face off in a best-of-five before playing in the Louisville Invitational on Friday and Saturday.
Mater Dei and Redondo are together at the Durango Fall Classic later in the month. While Miner is back then, Iosia is scheduled for an official visit to Texas and is expected to miss the tournament.