PALMDALE — Ayjah Landers and Madison Novak sat on the bench last year for a deep Quartz Hill girls volleyball team that won the first championship in program history.
This year as two of the three returners, the duo of outside hitters are leaders and team captains for the Rebels.
Landers and Novak led Quartz Hill to a straight set Golden League victory, 25-21, 25-14, 25-8 at Highland High on Tuesday.
“They were very good last year, but we just had a phenomenal team,” Quartz Hill coach Dave Gutierrez said. “It was just a matter of time before they got their shot. This year the two of them have really embraced their role, which is leadership. They’re both captains and also knowing they are going to be the go-to players. The ones that are going to have to convert for us when things get difficult.
“We joke every once in a while. They sat on the bench all year long just waiting for their turn last year. Now they’re in charge. They’re the ones getting all the sets. They are expected to lead, because we have few returning leaders. It’s really a neat transition to see them go from a supporting role and cheer. They know what it’s like to be on the bench to now having a lot of responsibility. They have both really embraced that. It’s been a blast watching them take those leadership roles.”
Quartz Hill (12-6, 4-0) and Highland (6-6, 3-1) were both undefeated in the Golden League entering the match, along with Knight.
The Rebels have gone undefeated in the Golden League the last three seasons, since losing a pair of matches to Highland in 2015.
“I feel we’ve made the transition of getting used to everyone on the team,” Landers said. “I feel we just need maybe to bond more to make it for sure. The new girls on the team are a huge asset. I’m really thankful that the new girls on the team today have performed well. I feel that slowly we’re just starting to mend together.”
The Rebels have two seniors and three returning players, but none of which were starters last season, including server Rhiannon Romero.
The inexperience may have showed in the opening set, as Quartz Hill and Highland traded the lead.
Highland led by as many as four points, 17-13, on a kill by junior Indiah Lewis, but Quartz Hill took the lead for good 20-19 on a long rally, as Landers had two kills during the Rebels’ rally.
“I think at the beginning it was a little rocky, but after the first set we mentally transitioned and we knew this was our rival team and we have to beat them,” said Landers, who led the Rebels with 12 kills. “So I think our mental shift just changed and we decided to play how we normally play. We started to focus a lot more.
“In the beginning, because we’re so nervous we forget to talk. So I feel in the last two sets we decided to communicate extra so we know who gets what ball and so we can run successful plays.”
Novak had a key kill down the stretch for Quartz Hill and Jada Johnson and Gabriella Gelfound combined for a crucial block.
“I think we did pretty good,” said Quartz Hill junior Rachel Spravka, a first-year varsity player. “I know the start, we get nervous a little bit, but I do think towards the end we all came together. We all just play and have fun, but also being disciplined at what we do.
“It’s just like a little bit in the beginning. It’s our rival. But sometimes in the beginning, it’s a little bit of nerves. It’s just something we have to forget about and shake off.”
Although Highland grabbed a quick lead to start the second set, Quartz Hill took the lead for good 4-3 on a block by Brianna Kelpis.
Quartz Hill got kills by Novak, Johnson, Landers and Kelpis down the stretch as the Rebels maintained their lead. Novak scored a kill on set point.
“It was a successful night for us,” Gutierrez said. “That first set was rocky. I think being at Highland is always difficult, because their crowd is loud and everybody is excited. There’s a lot of history between our two schools. I think we had to get over some of those nerves. We did what we wanted to do. It’s a young team. We have a lot of things we’re trying to accomplish this year, as far as growth is concerned. I feel that we’re doing that. Every week we’re getting better.
“One of the things we’ve been working on lately is lowering our serves, so we did that tonight. We were able to serve a little more aggressively than we have been. We’ve also been working on varying our offense, because we have two very strong outside hitters in (Madison) and Ayjah. Their combination is tough to deal with for most defenses. We wanted to be more than one dimensional in that regard. We did a good job of that tonight.”
Highland led briefly at the start of the third set, but Quartz Hill quickly pulled away after taking a 2-1 lead.
Six different Quartz Hill players had kills in the third set, including one by Kelpis on set and match point.
Gutierrez said Kelpis did a good job of changing up her shots, including setting up the back more.
“We’re having to go back to some of the basics right now, kind of get those young gals caught up,” Gutierrez said. “But the growth has been so big this season already, because we had a lot to learn, we really see visible growth from week to week.”
Novak had 10 kills, Kelpis finished with seven kills and Jada Johnson added five. Spravka recorded four aces and Morgan Holman added three aces.
Lewis led Highland with 11 kills, senior April Gonzalez finished with six kills, junior Jenna Cottrell added four aces and senior libero Rozelyn Carrillo had eight perfect passes.
“Especially in the first game, we showed how we can play,” Highland first-year coach Adam Burger said. “We’ve been working on continuing that energy in the later games. They’re still trying to find that energy in the later games and make those big changes.
“They were able to adapt to us quicker than we were able to adapt to them. Even though we were applying changes, they have more in the wheelhouse than we did. That’s going to be one of our goals for next time.”
Burger said the Bulldogs do have a decent amount of returning players, but they will be tested this week. Highland plays matches on five consecutive days.
The Bulldogs play Serrano today, Eastside on Thursday and participate in the California City Tournament on Friday and Saturday.
“It’s our busiest week of the whole season,” Burger said.