Rising to the Challenge

Palisades middle blocker Annie Wibbelsman (center) and her teammates start to celebrate moments after the final point of Saturday night’s 26-24, 25-14, 8-25, 25-23 victory over Taft.
Photos by Steve Galluzzo

Pali High Girls Volleyall Topples Taft in Four Sets to Capture 30th City Championship

By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor

For  the last several years the road to the City Section girls volleyball title has gone through the West Valley League, but that changed Saturday night in Lake Balboa when Annie Wibbelsman’s spike landed inches inside the line to punctuate Palisades’ 30th City championship and its first in the eight-team Open Division.

“I’m so proud we were able to do it,” Wibbelsman said after the fourth-seeded Dolphins’ 26-24, 25-14, 8-25, 25-23 victory over third-seeded Taft. “We proved ourselves and I’ll never ever forget this!”

Palisades senior Alex Laita tips the ball over Taft’s Samantha Hakimi and Amiree Hendricks-Walker for one of her match-high 22 kills in the City Open Division final at Birmingham High.

Alex Laita was injured all season but returned just before the playoffs and led the Dolphins with a match-high 22 kills against the Toreadors, who beat Palisades at the Venice Invitational in September and were seeking their sixth City title.    

“I didn’t think it would ever happen, but it’s redemption,” said Laita, a senior outside hitter committed to Oregon. “After coming so close the last two years it’s even sweeter. I felt extra pressure because I knew my team was counting on me.”

Having lost nine key players to graduation, Coach Carlos Gray believed his young team was a year or two away, but the Dolphins proved their time is now.   

“It’s been such a hard season because we had so many injuries,” Gray said. “I didn’t have this starting lineup until the playoffs. The girls worked their tails off. They had 34 wins without Alex, then she came in and showed why she’s the best hitter in the City.”       

Sydney Conway spikes past Granada Hills blockers Patricia Morris (left) and Carissa Bradford in the semifinals.

Palisades pulled off a rare postseason trifecta by knocking off three West Valley giants—Chatsworth, Granada Hills and Taft—to claim its first City crown since raising the Division I trophy in 2014.   

“Let’s be real… the West Valley is the toughest league in the City and we had to beat three West Valley opponents to win this title. I love this team so much.”

Palisades earned the No. 7 seed in the Southern California Regional Division III playoffs and hosted Oceanside El Camino in the first round Tuesday.

“Carlos knew Taft well and gave us a good strategy,” junior Ashton Evans said.

Palisades punched its ticket to the finals by staging one of the biggest comebacks in the program’s storied history last Tuesday night, climbing out of a two-set hole to stun top-seeded Granada Hills, 21-25, 22-25, 25-15, 28-26, 17-15.

On the verge of being swept, the Dolphins rallied from a nine-point deficit to take a 25-24 lead in the fourth set on a kill by Laita. The defending champions went up 26-25 before Alexa Hogan timed her jump perfectly to block Highlanders top gun Carissa Bradford and Sydney Conway’s spike two points later forced a deciding set.   Laita’s ace gave Palisades a 16-15 lead in the fifth and Bradford hit just wide to end an epic thriller.

Gray had tweeted beforehand:  “My girls deserve my best effort.” They got that, and dug deep themselves, to avenge Open Division finals losses in 2016 and 2017.