Liberty Road Trip Ends With State Title Sweep

It's been a long road for the Liberty High Patriots this year. They went from playing second fiddle to Centennial High in Bakersfield to one of the top seeds in the Div. II state tournament. Yet, they still had to travel two hours down the interstate twice in the playoffs to defeat legendary Orange County teams Mater Dei and Newport Harbor to reach the state final. The long road paid off Saturday with a straight set 15-10, 15-8, 17-15 win over Los Gatos for the state title.

"We had the opportunity to play on the road against two tough opponents and that gave us the confidence to win," said Liberty coach Leann Slayton. "They wanted to make the season go as long as they could because they love one another. They finished the race."

The first two games were relatively easy for the ladies of Liberty. The Patriots, a four-year school that had never been to a state final, were the relaxed, confident bunch, dancing their pre-match dance while the Regulators, a group of rowdy students who traveled with the team during the playoffs, cheered them on. And when the match started, they played like a team that had been to the dance many times before.

In Game 1, after a Sandy Sargent block spotted Los Gatos a 1-0 lead, Liberty scored seven straight points, two on huge blocks by Jania Motton that signaled the Patriots would not be denied. A six-point lead became nine, 13-4, after consecutive kills by Motton, the finals MVP. The Wildcats clawed to within 14-10, using two lefty swipes from Katie Rowell, but Melissa Ford patted down a Los Gatos overpass to end Game 1, 15-10.

Game 2 continued the pattern of Liberty playing relaxed and determined and Los Gatos, who'd been to the state final two years ago, playing tense. Consecutive aces from Brooke Henry helped build a 10-4 lead as Los Gatos struggled with serve-receive. The game ended, 15-9 in Liberty's favor, on a bad pass by the Wildcats.

"When we're playing well, we're passing well," said Los Gatos coach Joe Ripp. "When our serve receive breaks down, we have a tough time. Obviously, we didn't pass well."

The Patriots appeared poised to raise the victory flag early in Game 3, when three consecutive aces by Jodi Hardin gave Liberty a 10-1 lead. Los Gatos could have folded, but the Wildcats roared back behind Rowell, Sargent and Alexa Anderson. Rowell's terrific serve led to a Liberty hitting error that tied the game 12-12 and Anderson's kill and another hitting error put Los Gatos on the brink of forcing a fourth game.

But Motton and Liberty would not be denied. The senior middle smashed consecutive slides to give the Patriots the 15-14 lead. Sargent's ace tied it at 15-15, but a hitting error and Hardin kill finished off the sweep.

Motton finished with a match-high 26 kills for Liberty, while Hardin added 15 kills and three aces. Henry had four kills and five of the team's 11 aces on the afternoon.

Motton said that the win validated Liberty's belief that it was an outstanding team.

"When we were younger we were always trying to prove to everyone that we were that good," she said.

"A key point definitely was the win over Buchanan, added Slayton. "Once we did that, we felt like we could beat anyone."

Anderson was the only Wildcat in double figures in kills with 10. Rowell had nine and Caroline Walters contributed 31 assists.

Still, the loss didn't put a damper on the memories these girls will take away from the state championship match or the season as a whole.

"That third game showed what we're all about and it makes the match not a waste," said Katie Kramer.

"I think we did more than anyone expected us to do, even ourselves," added Walters.

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