Knowing every match could be the last of their high school careers, Marymount High seniors Christine Irvin and Lanti Moye-McLaren have raised their games to a whole new level in the playoffs and their contributions are one reason why the Sailors find themselves one win away from a seventh state title.
In a showdown of CIF Southern Section Division 1 champions, Moye-McLaren's hitting and Irvin's digging helped second-seeded Marymount upset top-seeded Los Alamitos, 21-25, 25-20, 25-20, 25-21, in the regional finals Tuesday night at Los Alamitos High.
Irvin, the Sailors' co-captain and starting libero, enjoyed one of her finest matches, finishing with a career-high 34 digs and 15 assists. Meanwhile, Moye-McLaren led all hitters with 18 kills and added 17 digs despite playing with a painful rib injury as she has since the section final against Corona del Mar.
"I've been too afraid to get an X-ray mainly because I don't want anyone telling me that I can't play," Moye-McLaren said afterward, ice packs strapped around her torso. "Christine is amazing. She was getting to every ball. She's been my best friend since kindergarten and she's the one who first got me into volleyball. We have a sort of mental connection. Both of us seem to know when the other needs encouragement."
According to Irvin, chemistry is one of the strengths of this year's team.
"We're really close and usually when players get really mad at each other they don't play as well so we try not to do that," Irvin said after receiving a big victory hug from her sister Kelly, who preceded Christine at Marymount, captaining the Sailors to their last state championship in 2006, and is now a graduate student at USC. "It feels so surreal and I'll remember this forever."
Besides each other, no one was more appreciative of Irvin and Moye-McLaren's clutch performances against Los Alamitos than their coach Cari Klein, a fellow Pacific Palisades resident who has watched them develop their skills through her club program, Sunshine Volleyball.
"That's the best Christine's played and it seemed like whenever we needed the kill Lanti got it for us," said Klein, who has steered the Sailors to eight Southern Section titles and six regional crowns since taking the helm in 1998. "The girls are in great shape. I'm sure they could've kept playing but I did not want it to go five. I was exhausted by the fourth game and I wasn't even playing."
Marymount, the Southern Section Division 1A champion, is usually the favorite when it takes the floor but that was not the case against the Griffins, who won the Southern Section Division 1AA title over Newport Harbor and defeated the Sailors in the semifinals of the Durango Tournament in September.
"We'd played them before so I had a feel for the rhythm and tempo of their sets and that was kind of the same," Klein said. "Last time they jumped on us quick and served us off the court. After the first game [tonight] I wanted us to get down to business and not waste too much energy celebrating after every point."
Both Palisadians were thrilled to have another shot at Los Alamitos, which had dealt Marymount the first of its four losses and entered Tuesday's meeting on a roll, having won 21 of 22 sets in the section and regional playoffs.
"Sometimes it's nice being the underdogs," Irvin said. "After they beat us we made a pact that if we played them again we would go all-out and tonight we definitely proved ourselves."
"We knew it would be tough coming into their own gym and there were some comments that I guess they don't like us much, but we all know each other through club anyway," Moye-McLaren added. "We really embraced the underdog mentality."
Marymount opened the second set on a 12-3 run to silence the packed crowd and the Sailors went on to level the best-of-five match. Moye-McLaren had nine kills in the third stanza alone, including three in a row off bump sets from Irvin that gave Marymount a 20-13 advantage. Freshman Yaasmeen Bedart-Ghani ended the set with a spike. Lauren Greskovics-Fuller's ace serve put Marymount ahead for good, 15-14, in the fourth set, which ended on a serve into the twine on the second match point.
"We rely on being versatile," said Dave Huber, who was an assistant coach when the Griffins netted back-to-back state titles in 2005-06 and became head coach the next year. "Playing at this level you can't be predictable, you have to mix it up. They didn't do much differently, but they played defense and extended the points. They're one of the best teams in Southern California and they certainly got the better of us tonight."
Marymount challenges defending champion Palo Alto for the state championship Saturday at 7 p.m. at Concordia University in Irvine and if the Sailors prevail it will be perhaps the most satisfying triumph for Klein because of the caliber of opposition her resilient team has faced all season long.
"Our division is gnarly this year," she said. "Even when we've won CIF [Division 1A] and state, we've never played this level of competition all the way through the playoffs."
Along with Marymount senior Ashley Paillet, who was also their teammate at , Irvin and Moye-McLaren are having so much fun in their final season together that they almost wish it will ever end. Yet each is keenly aware that, win or lose, Saturday's match is their last as Sailors.
"I'm not worried about a letdown," Moye-McLaren said moments after she was selected Time Warner Cable's Player of the Match. "It's the [state] finals so we know whoever we play will be tough. We just have to focus on the small things because that's what got us to this point."
Irvin agreed: "For Saturday, we have to do the same thing we did tonight and that's work together as a team. When we do that we always feel like we have a great chance of winning."
CIF DIVISION I STATE CHAMPIONSHIP
Saturday, Dec. 3
At Concordia University, Irvine
Los Angeles Marymount (33-4-1) vs. Palo Alto (35-3), 7 p.m.
Directions to Concordia University: Take Pacific Coast Highway to I-10 East. Merge onto the 405 South towards Long Beach. Take Exit 4 for University Drive toward Jeffrey Road. Turn right onto University Drive. Turn left onto Ridgeline Drive. Turn right onto Concordia (campus will be on left).