The Orange Coast College women’s volleyball team’s historic state finals appearance came to a quick end on Friday in a 3-1 quarterfinals loss to American River College.
The 21-6 Pirates earned their first state finals playoff berth since 2009 after a narrow victory over Santa Barbara City College in the final round of the Southern California Regional Playoffs. OCC’s season came to an end on Friday against a Beavers squad that is the No. 3 seed in the North and is playing in their fourth consecutive State Championship Tournament.
“Everybody wants to end their season with a win and we would’ve liked to have done that, but we had a really good year,” OCC head coach Chuck Cutenese said. “I am really proud of this team.”
From the beginning of the match, OCC’s biggest roadblock in getting past the quarterfinals was clear: the right arm of Awelina Fakalata. The Beavers’ sophomore outside hitter was second in the state this season in total kills with 467, and made her presence known early against the Pirates with 10 kills in the first set, while the Pirates had only nine kills as a team.
“That outside hitter is the best volleyball player in community college volleyball,” Cutenese said. “We couldn’t stop her. Our goal was just to slow her down and not let her have a great match and she had a really great match.”
Fakalata’s offensive onslaught led the way for the Beavers, as they quickly built a strong 14-6 lead. After benefiting from four attack errors by American River, Coast was able to even the odds late in the set with an 11-5 run to cut the deficit to two. With a chance to steal the set after previously trailing by eight points, the OCC defense could not withstand another surge from Fakalata, who had two kills and an ace in the final stretch to give the Beavers a 25-19 first set advantage.
In the following set, fatigue may have started to set in for Fakalata. After carrying the Beavers on her back offensively in the first set, the powerful outside hitter committed eight attack errors in the second set. The setback for Fakalata in an otherwise spectacular game in conjunction with a strong four-kill performance from Coast sophomore outside hitter Brisa Zapata-Reaves resulted in a tightly contested set that was tied at 15 midway through. However, despite their valiant effort to avoid going down 0-2, the Pirates committed five attack errors late in the set and Fakalata added two more kills to give American River the 25-21 second set win.
“We just weren’t playing in our system and playing our game,” Coast sophomore libero Emily Payne said. “I think that if we played how we played against Santa Barbara, it would have been a different game, we would have probably taken another set or possibly won but we just didn’t show up as a unit.”
Trailing 0-2 and facing a potential sweep, Cutenese inserted freshman middle blocker Natalia Brandlin into the middle position to neutralize opposing American River middle blocker Sadie White, who had seven kills and six blocks in the match. With the season on the line, Brandlin played the set of her life, dominating the middle as she racked up five blocks and three kills. Trailing 10-9, Brandlin helped will the Pirates to an 11-2 run with three kills and three blocks during that stretch to give OCC a 20-12 lead.
“[Brandlin] is tall, she’s physical, she’s competitive,” Cutenese said. “She’s got all those things going for her and I think it’s the competitiveness in her that really came through in her blocking.”
Brandlin finished the match with a total of 10 kills and seven blocks, and the Pirates carried the momentum from their run to take the set 25-17.
In the fourth and final set, the Pirates once again fell victim to an outstanding offensive performance from Fakalata, who added six more kills to finish the contest with 22, along with 19 digs.
“She is a Division I athlete if I’ve ever seen one,” Cutenese said. “She has a very good jump, a really good arm swing and is a fierce competitor.”
Coast kept things close early at 7-7, but would lose focus by giving up two aces and committing five attack errors in a 12-3 run for the Beavers that put the match out of reach. Ultimately, a service ace from American River middle blocker Aurora Meneghetti would seal the set 25-15 in the Beavers’ favor, ending the Pirates’ dreams of a state championship.
Despite the loss, team captain and sophomore libero Payne etched her name in the OCC record books in her final game as a Pirate. Heading into the state tourney, Payne only needed 14 digs to be the all-time leader in Coast history. After racking up 20 digs in the state quarterfinals, that title is all hers.
“It feels amazing,” Payne said. “I set my goals high and I didn't know at first if I was going to be able to achieve it but it's always good to set goals higher than what you think you can do, so I’ll always remember that my hard work will pay off.”
After coaching her for the last two seasons, Cutenese spoke very proudly of Payne’s accomplishment and what she meant to the team as captain.
“She’s really been the heart of our team, and she leads us through everything we do,” Cutenese said. “I just love that she was able to achieve that goal.”
Following the loss, Payne reflected on the journey that the Pirates went on this season in their most successful campaign of the last decade.
“I love our coaching staff and it was just amazing to play under them and talk strategy with them,” Payne said. “We had a good group of girls this year, it was just all about having fun and playing volleyball. I’ll forever be a Pirate.”
Staff writer Enrique Rodriguez contributed to the reporting on this story.