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Warrior spikers win Palm Desert Tourney

Fallbrook High School’s girls’ volleyball team achieved the distinction of winning a tournament before winning its first match of the season.

The Warriors actually won six of seven matches during the Palm Desert Tournament September 19, but because those matches were not regulation length they do not count in the season win-loss records and Fallbrook had an 0-3 overall record after capturing the tournament championship.

The Palm Desert Tournament also saw three Warriors earn all-tournament honors.

“We’re finding the right chemistry,” said Fallbrook coach Peter Peng. “We were really focused and playing well as a team.”

The Warriors began their season September 11 with a 22-25, 23-25, 21-25 loss at Mount Carmel. “We actually had a great match,” Peng said. “We lost in three, but the games were close.”

In the season opener the Warriors also lost starting opposite hitter Roxanne Barnes-Smith to a sprained ankle.

Barnes-Smith did not play in the Palm Desert Tournament, nor did the senior play in the Warriors’ two games earlier that week.

Starting outside hitter Suzi Mellano injured her wrist late in the first game against Mount Carmel and missed the start of the second game while her wrist was being taped, and although Mellano returned later in the game Kristy Sather injured her foot while substituting.

The September 16 match against Vista was moved to Fallbrook, and the Warriors lost three 26-24 games while taking a 25-20 victory in the third contest. “Vista played well enough to win,” Peng said.

The Warriors hosted Westview on September 17 and lost a four-game match to the Wolverines.

Fallbrook was one of four CIF San Diego Section teams to make the trip to Palm Desert. Three of those teams – Fallbrook, Mount Carmel, and Mission Hills – were playing in their initial Palm Desert Tournament.

Ramona High School travels to Palm Desert annually, and Ramona coach Connie Halfaker noted that the 2009 tournament was her 11th Palm Desert Tournament but her first with any other schools from San Diego County.

Ironically, Ramona won the tournament in 2007 and had a tournament championship before the Bulldogs had any wins for that season.

Ramona had an 0-2 record after winning the 2007 tournament, and as would be the case with Fallbrook two years later the Bulldogs’ match just prior to that tournament was a loss to Westview.

As Fallbrook would do in 2009, Ramona finished second in its pool before defeating the first-place pool team in the finals. (The Bulldogs prevailed over Troy High School of Fullerton, which did not participate in the 2009 tournament.)

Mount Carmel coach Bri Beal recommended to Peng that the Warriors participate in the tournament.

“I like the idea of traveling and going away but not so far away,” Peng said. “Palm Desert seemed like a good way to kick off the season.”

Halfaker has noted that the tournament has provided Ramona’s players with a bonding opportunity, and Peng also noted that the tournament, along with the overnight stay in Palm Desert and a Sunday morning brunch, gave his players an opportunity to get to know each other better.

“The team integrates itself and you learn about one another,” Peng said.

Halfaker has also mentioned that the lack of the tournament’s effect on Ramona’s overall record allows the Bulldogs to utilize the tournament for practice.

Peng noted that the lack of consequences on a team’s overall record allows him to utilize substitutes more frequently. “It’s an opportunity to play your team while competing,” he said. “I got everyone on my team to play.”

The 2009 Palm Desert Tournament consisted of ten teams which were divided into two five-team pools.

Pool play matches consisted of two games to 21 points each with no requirement that a team win a game by two points. If the teams split the two games, no third game was played.

Fallbrook began pool play with a 21-13, 21-9 victory over Desert Christian and followed that win with a 21-19, 21-15 triumph against La Quinta.

The Warriors then played Xavier High School of Palm Desert and took a 21-14, 21-15 victory over the Saints.

Fallbrook’s only loss of the tournament was to Jurupa Valley High School, which took 21-19 and 21-11 victories at the Warriors’ expense to close out pool play.

“Jurupa was a very solid defensive team,” Peng said. “They played better than we did.”

The loss to Jurupa placed the Warriors second in their pool. Jurupa’s first-place pool play result pitted the Jaguars against Mission Hills in the first round of bracket competition while Fallbrook’s runner-up ranking gave the Warriors a bracket play opener against host Palm Desert.

The quarterfinals were originally slated to be best-of-three matches to 21 points, but as the Ramona-La Quinta bracket match was under way the lateness of the evening caused tournament organizers to make the other three first-round contests one-game matches to 25 points.

Fallbrook required a 27-25 overscore over Palm Desert to reach the semifinals.

Three of the four semifinalists were San Diego Section teams, and Fallbrook played Ramona in one of the penultimate matches. The Warriors won the one-game match by a 25-23 score.

“We got behind early in the match,” Halfaker said. “We squandered our opportunities to earn points.”

Fallbrook eventually took a 23-20 lead before a Bulldog sideout once again narrowed the Warrior margin to two points. Fallbrook took a 24-21 lead with Ramona scoring the next two points.

“We pretty much were going point to point back and forth with them,” Halfaker said. “We got our game back and then they had to contend with us.”

Jurupa Valley defeated Mount Carmel in the other semifinal. Ramona defeated Mount Carmel in the third-place game, giving the Bulldogs a 5-1-1 record in the tournament and an 0-2 official overall record for the 2009 season.

The finals were in a best-of-three format with the first two games to 21 points and the third game if necessary to 15 points.

Fallbrook earned a 21-17 victory in the first game while the Jaguars prevailed by an identical score in the second contest.

“Jurupa made key plays that turned around the second game,” Peng said.

“They really relied on you making unforced errors,” Peng said of Jurupa’s team. “They try to wear you down.”

The loss also provided a test for the Warriors. “How you handle adversity is, I think, sometimes more important than how you handle success,” Peng said.

In the third game which determined the championship, Fallbrook emerged with a 15-10 victory.

“We learned how to finish and we learned how to do it the right way,” Peng said. “Great team play. Great team support.”

The Warriors’ previous regular-season tournament was the 2008 Southern California Volleyball Invitational, which is hosted by Granite Hills High School and played at Granite Hills and San Diego Christian College.

Fallbrook won last year’s Southern California Volleyball Invitational, giving the Warriors two consecutive tournament wins.

The Warriors participated in three regular-season tournaments in 2008 and swept their pool play matches in all three of those tournaments.

(Fallbrook also participated in the 2008 CIF tournament, reaching the Division I quarterfinals before a loss to top-seeded La Costa Canyon.)

Mellano, who is a junior, and senior middle blocker Leigh Lawrence started in both the Southern California Volleyball Invitational and the Palm Desert Tournament.

The all-tournament team included junior middle blocker Kendall Haldi, senior setter Ellyn Grantham, and senior outside hitter Jessica Kohls.

“It’s nice that the coaches recognize our team,” Peng said. “Those were just the three recognized, but we’re such a team. If any of our players don’t perform, we don’t win those matches.”

With Barnes-Smith unable to play in the tournament, sophomore libero Talia DeFalco was moved to the right side hitter position and defensive specialist Tess Sutton served as Fallbrook’s libero.

The Warriors lost four seniors from the 2008 squad, including three who are now on NCAA Division I rosters.

“We lose the power, but we have greater balance,” Peng said of his current team. “Our defense will keep us in the game and allow our offense to finish the job.”

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