TORRANCE - A season ago at this time, the La Salle High girls' volleyball team was making a surprising run characterized by clutch play and big-time upsets, culminating with a sweep of the top seed in the semifinals.
This time around, draped with the No. 2 seed, the Lancers found themselves in a semifinal round most expected them to be in.
But faced with familiar Del Rey League-foe Bishop Montgomery, the task at hand turned out to be a far more arduous one.
With comebacks in each of the previous four games, a berth in the CIF Southern Section Division I-A championship came down to a pivotal fifth game.
There was no comeback to be had for underdog Bishop Montgomery, though, as sophomore outside hitter Haley DeSales put down six of her match-high 25 kills, including the final point, in the deciding fifth to propel La Salle past its rival Tuesday night, 22-25, 25-18, 25-21, 16-25, 15-12, at Bishop Montgomery High.
"I'm so happy," said junior middle blocker Olivia Bin, who had 13 kills. "I'm beyond ecstatic."
For the second consecutive season, La Salle (33-2) will play in a CIF title match, as it will take on El Dorado, which defeated Capistrano Valley, 3-1, Saturday at 5 p.m. at Santiago Canyon College. Last season, the Lancers lost in the Division II-AA final to St. Lucy's, the No. 1 seed in Division I-A that was upset by El Dorado in the quarterfinals.
"I'm really proud of everyone," said La Salle Coach Tiare Tuitama, the reigning All-Area Girls' Volleyball Coach of the Year. "The fact that we're up a division, playing against different teams we don't know, it makes me extremely proud of the girls.
"We've been there before and we're trying to come back with a ring."
On Tuesday, it was all about the semifinals and Bishop Montgomery (22-14) - a team La Salle had previously defeated twice on its road to a league championship, once in a sweep and once in four games.
The Knights didn't go easy in the least.
"It was a good match, [La Salle's] a great team," Knights Coach Kevin Norman said.
A great team that was taken to a fifth game, one in which La Salle sprinted out to a 10-3 lead. But in losses in the first and fourth games, La Salle had given up leads late and once more Bishop Montgomery rallied, using a 5-1 run to cut the score to 13-11. This time around though, La Salle wouldn't be denied.
"We just said, 'We can do this,'" DeSales said. "We were going all out."
A kill by senior outside hitter and captain Katrina Palffy, who had nine kills and 11 digs, gave the Lancers game-point at 14-11 and, after a long serve, DeSales put down the final point of the semifinals for the win.
"I think at different times, different players have different roles," DeSales said. "[My teammates] trust me and I trust all of them. They're the reason I do so well."
Said Tuitama of DeSales: "She stepped up. She's definitely one of our go-to players in crunch situations."
La Salle, which also got 36 digs from junior libero Caroline Knop, had a chance to close it out in four and was well on its way to doing so, racing out to a 7-0 lead after a Bin kill.
Looking as though the fourth game would be the most lopsided of the match it turned out to be, only in favor of the Knights, who stormed back to take the win on the strength of a 9-1 run that turned a 9-3 deficit into a 12-10 lead.
"They gave us a good fight," DeSales said. "I gotta give it to them, that was such a good comeback."