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It was a new frontier for San Clemente girls beach volleyball on Tuesday, April 25, as the Tritons hosted on the first day of the inaugural CIF-SS playoffs for the sport, and San Clemente made the most of the overcast afternoon down the stairs at Lasuen Beach.
San Clemente swept the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 pairs matches with relative ease to dominate Harvard-Westlake, 4-1, in a CIF-SS Division 1 wild-card match.
“It’s historic,” said San Clemente coach Casey Swenson. “I end up running into a lot of women who played volleyball here at San Clemente or elsewhere, and when I say we have CIF playoffs (for beach), it’s something they all wish they could do. It’s really cool that these girls get that opportunity.”
The Tritons, who finished second in the South Coast League this season, will travel to Channel League champion Dos Pueblos of Goleta for the Division 1 first round on Thursday, April 27. The winner of that match will either host Redondo Union or travel to Laguna Beach for the quarterfinals on Tuesday, May 2.
San Clemente (13-4) knew it needed just two wins from the first four pairs, as Harvard-Westlake (4-5) didn’t field a No. 5 pair, which started the Tritons off with one forfeit victory for the pair of Mikaela Bellows and Sarah Ahmadi.
With the top three pairs squaring off at the same time at Lasuen Beach’s three courts, San Clemente made quick work for its wild-card victory.
No. 2 pair Gisele Galbasini and Pyper Nelson dominated their sets with wins of 21-8 and 21-6. No. 3 pair Ahston Nelson and Callan Johnson were similarly dominant in another sweep, 21-11 and 21-3, to secure the win early for San Clemente.
No. 4 pair Chloe Ashe and Kadence Cook also swept their match with wins of 21-9 and 21-19.
It looked as if South Coast League pairs tournament champions Sophia Williams and Quinn Loper would make it a clean sweep for San Clemente in their first set, but Harvard-Westlake’s top pair found its defensive edge and honed in on its serve game to surge back. The Wolverines finally tied the first set at 20-20 and won the set, 22-20.
That top Harvard-Westlake pair kept up the momentum and pounded its serve game in the second set in a 21-14 win, handing San Clemente its lone loss on the day.
The environment of Tuesday’s match was different than any other CIF-SS playoff round in any other sport. Beyond the beach setting and dolphins dancing in the waves, it is a more laid-back atmosphere, with music playing and few spectators, creating a serene experience.
With so much of that baked into the nature of the sport, it’s a new task for Swenson, who is also the girls indoor coach in the fall, and his Tritons to ramp up the competitiveness into a playoff setting to fight for a championship.
“That is the challenge, isn’t it?” Swenson said. “We have to build that into our preparation. We’ve got to make sure every practice that we know what we’re working towards. And the girls know, the thing about this, in indoor when things aren’t going right, I can make a sub and move things around. (In beach,) you’re totally exposed. It’s you and your partner. If things aren’t going right, it’s up to you to fix it.”
That will be even more of the case for San Clemente’s top two pairs at the CIF-SS individual tournament on May 9-10 at the Newland Street Volleyball Courts at Huntington State Beach.
As finalists at the South Coast League Finals, the league champion pair of Loper and Williams, along with the runners-up of Pyper and Ashton Nelson, have qualified for the CIF-SS tournament. The Nelson sisters weren’t paired up for Tuesday’s playoff match as a team strategy play, but just as they qualified together, they’ll be linked up for the tournament.
“The Nelson sisters are both the tall, hitter/blocker types,” Swenson said, “and so, when we play in the team matchups, we try to pair them with a defensive player and try to squeeze more wins out of the matchups. But when we really want to have our strongest, them together are really tough.”
San Clemente’s beach-town strength will be put to the test as the first-ever CIF-SS beach volleyball playoffs march on.