LEMOORE — Behind their raucous home crowd and an energetic start, Lemoore cruised to a clean sweep of Tulare Union and earned a spot in the quarterfinals.
“We were actually mentally tough and that is a thing we were missing earlier this season,” Lemoore coach Rachel Taylor said. “The last three games we’ve been playing within ourselves, we played mentally tough and we came out and took care of business.”
Led by Shelby Saporetti and Leah Rodrigues, the Tigers made few mistakes on Thursday in their CIF Central Section Division II first-round match and were mentally sharp from the first serve in their 3-0 (25-20, 25-18, 25-15) victory.
Saporetti led the team with 10 kills and added four digs and a block. The junior took a painful ball to the side of her head early in the first set. She took a seat on the bench and with an ice bag on her head, she recomposed herself and was back on the court after a couple of points to help her team out.
“I just wanted this set so bad and wanted this game so bad and to prove that even though they did hit me in the face, I could come back from that,” Saporetti said. “I didn’t want to let my team down. I just wanted to go out there and show myself.”
Rodrigues, the four-year varsity libero, was on a different level during the match. Her ability to find the ball — and react — at all times was invaluable for the Tigers and made for some great saves.
The senior hit the deck time after time and finished with a whopping 30 digs — none cooler than her kicked ball that went over the net in the first set. Rodrigues was best described as a homing beacon, while tracking the ball.
“This is my senior year and I knew that I wanted to make this year memorable and I didn’t want to have any regrets going into it,” Rodrigues said.
Lemoore (18-11, 6-6 WYL) trailed 6-3 in the first set, but tied it up with a 3-0 run. If there was one thing the Tigers did well on Thursday, it was timely runs and even timelier kills.
With the score tied 8-all, Lemoore went on a 7-0 run to break open the set. Tulare Union called a timeout, but Lemoore kept on pressing. They led 19-11 before the Tribe called timeout again.
Tulare Union (22-13 7-3, EYL) went on a 5-0 run to cut the lead to three, but Lemoore put an end to their comeback bid by taking four of the next five points. Leading 24-20, Saporetti got the kill to close out the first set.
The second set proved to be much more difficult as Tulare Union was trying to avoid a 2-0 hole on the road. It was tight through the first 10 points before Lemoore opened up a six-point lead with a 4-0 run.
The Tribe battled back with two individual 4-0 runs to knot the set at 15 apiece. Eventually Lemoore led 19-18 and the two teams teetered on a key set for both teams. The Tigers could take control of the match or Tulare Union could jump right back in by splitting the first two sets.
“When we talked in the timeout I said, ‘Look, you can’t let them back in this game, so you have to be smart. No errors,’” Taylor said. “They really composed themselves, they took care of it, they had some nice touches and great digs and some kills right when we needed it.”
Lemoore heard Taylor loud and clear. They responded with a furious 6-0 run to close out the set and shut the door on any momentum from their opponent.
The Tigers led wire-to-wire in the third set and never looked back. They built a 12-7 lead before a 4-0 run to cut the lead to two. But like in the previous two sets, Lemoore had an answer. A 7-0 run made it 19-10 and the match was effectively over.
With the victory, Lemoore now has a date against the No. 1 seed Bakersfield Christian (28-8, 12-0 SSL). The road match will take place next Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.
“If we play within ourselves, we will give them a good match,” Taylor said. “They are an amazing team … but they’re beatable and I think if we come in with the mindset of, ‘This could possibly be our last game — no matter what it’s only two more — so you play your heart out and then whatever happens, happens.”