The John F. Kennedy Islanders could do no wrong Friday night, riding a rabid support crowd on senior night to drop the Notre Dame Royals in straight sets in their Independent Interscholastic Athletic Association of Guam Girls Volleyball League matchup.
Facing a crowd armed with banners celebrating their favorite seniors and green and gold balloons lining every bleacher, the Royals knew they were walking into hostile territory when the two unbeaten teams met up in the final game of the season. When the dust settled, the Islanders erupted in celebration, capping their perfect season with a three-set win (25-19, 25-19, 25-23) over the defending champs, who hadn’t lost a game in two years.
“I felt really, really good because this is the road that we have been working hard on for (so) much time,” said senior Frencine Villena. “For the same amount of years that they have been undefeated, that is also how long it has taken us to communicate better, work together and play harder as a whole.”
With the Royals keying on stifling the front-line attacks of Kiana Rivera, Villena came up huge on offense, hitting from all corners of the court to rattle off 11 kills that landed in ND territory. On the defensive end, senior libero Maiya Taijeron and Kiyoni Yamaguchi did a lot of the heavy lifting, fielding the various prongs of a very dangerous Royal offense led by Austia Mendiola.
Villena was quick to thank the huge crowd that showed up for senior night, adding their support only added to the sizzling atmosphere.
“The vibe in the gymnasium made a huge impact on our performance,” Villena said. “It motivated us because we knew our supporters believe in what our capabilities are as a team.”
While the win was a phenomenal experience, Villena said she knows there’s still work to be done. There are aspects of her game she needs to clean up to ensure she does her part and ensure her team is playing in the final game of the season and vying for a shot at the IIAAG championship.
“We just need to approach the playoffs one game at a time and point by point, instead of thinking too far ahead,” she said. “My mindset going into the playoffs is to not overthink anything and take everything step by step.”
Taijeron echoed her teammate’s thoughts, adding it was important that her team keep the positivity up, by staying composed and sticking to the game plan moving forward.
Her role, Taijeron said, is to “encourage my teammates to focus on ‘just us’ on the court.”
With the win behind him, JFK head coach Alden Bautista was pragmatic about his team’s mindset going into playoffs.
Making adjustments is key, he said, adding that every practice allows the team to work and adjust to their opponent’s offensive and defensive schemes.
“Going into playoffs, the record during regular season doesn’t matter as much,” he said. “Anything can happen. As long as (the team stays) focused on the goals they had in mind at the beginning of the season, it’ll work itself out.”
Quarterfinals start Tuesday. Only the top eight advance. The top four teams – JFK, ND, Academy of Our Lady of Guam and St. John’s – own the homecourt advantage for the first round of playoffs.
In the first set, Yamaguchi pushed her team out to a 5-0 lead. ND seemed a little stunned by the crowd, but regrouped behind Minami Rabago and Austia Mendiola, who pushed the Royals out to an 11-11 tie. The Islanders powered up once again, with Kiana Rivera finding a hole in the middle of Royal territory to ignite the crowd. From there, the Islanders pulled away, capitalizing on ND errors to take the first set 25-19.
The second set opened a little better for the Royals as they traded points until Yamaguchi slid one across the top of the net to make it a 6-4 game. The JFK offense lit up as Rivera notched a pair of aces and Yamaguchi added another kill to her night’s tally. A monstrous kill from Villena down the middle of the court capped off the 8-1 run as JFK doubled up on ND 13-6.
Down, but not out, Notre Dame setter Nicolette Perez and Mendiola fired up the Royals faithful with a series of tips that caught the JFK defense unaware to close the gap to 15-13 in JFK’s favor.
Down 22-18, Perez did it again to stave off a quick JFK victory. However, a pair of errors gave JFK back the ball. With the score at 23-19, ND libero Heaven Reyes worked hard, digging up the JFK hits and keeping the ball live. But, it wasn’t enough as a pair of errors ended the set 25-19.
In the third set, the Royals got off to a hot start taking a 9-4 lead off a monstrous block that momentarily stunned the Islanders. JFK found their answer in Villena, Rivera and Yamaguchi, who tag-teamed on offense, finding holes in the Royals defense for the 14-all game.
Both teams demonstrated why they were the league’s top teams and the crowd jumped in on the frenzy. Stellar defense proved key as hitters on both sides of the net unleashed several hits that normally would have resulted in a point.
Down by two, ND’s Michala Connelley tied up the game at 21 apiece off of a vicious pair of aces.
Despite the rally, the Islanders remained unfazed, locking in and riding the wave to a three-set victory.