COSTA MESA — Smack in the middle of Labor Day weekend, the Vanguard University women's volleyball team was, perhaps appropriately, hard at work Saturday night.
The Lions had to battle back and show a lot of heart after dropping the first two sets to Great Falls of Montana. But that only made the final result that much more exhilarating.
Vanguard used a frantic rally to claim a 17-25, 21-25, 26-24, 25-21, 15-9 win at The Pit in its last of four matches at the Crown Plaza Labor Day Tournament. And, though it is still early in the season, Vanguard Coach Marissa Booker (formerly Cothran) loved the fight she got out of her team at the conclusion of a long two days of matches.
"I think we have a fight in us that helped us come back and win," Booker said. "I think us losing [Friday] night in five games [to Carroll College], we didn't want that feeling again. That was a big thing for us.
"I think we came out too lackadaisical [against Great Falls]. We should have come out more prepared, but like I said, there was a huge fight in us that I liked to see. Our conference is the best conference in the nation, and we need that fight to be able to be successful in our conference."
Vanguard (4-1) also swept Cal State Dominguez Hills, 25-18, 25-19, 25-18, earlier Saturday in its third tournament match.
It appeared that Great Falls (3-9) might do the same to the hosts in the nightcap. And this was a Great Falls team that had been swept in its first three matches of the tournament, all by other Golden State Athletic Conference teams (Pt. Loma, Biola and Cal Baptist).
"We knew that they lost to other GSAC teams, so they were probably out for a little bit of blood," said Vanguard junior setter Alexandra Leja, who recorded 27 assists. "They want to show that they're working hard and they have a good program, and they wanted to blow us out of the water."
The Argonauts came out ready to play. Booker's Lions clearly didn't, as she implored her team to "turn the light switch on" during a timeout in the second set. She didn't mean hit the light fixture on the ceiling, which Vanguard did at a key point down 21-19 in that set to help Great Falls close it out.
But the Lions rallied behind the play of Jamie Heenan, who like Booker is a Newport Harbor High product. The junior had three service aces in the third set. The last was the biggest, hitting the top of the net and trickling over at set point to help Vanguard stay alive.
Heenan finished with a match-high 21 kills, a .378 hitting percentage and also had nine digs. She's a leader on a Lions team that starts six juniors and one sophomore.
"The great thing about Jamie is that Jamie understands the game of volleyball," Booker said. "She's come from great programs; she just gets it. She knows what it's like to play in matches like this."
Junior libero Ariel Strickler, who tied with Lisa Morgan for the team-lead in digs with 23, also had three big service aces. Hers came in the fourth set, to help the Lions rally from a 20-14 deficit. By the time Strickler was done serving, Vanguard was up, 22-21, and hung on.
The Lions got out to a 6-0 lead in the fifth set and again hung on, as Great Falls rallied to within 10-8 but couldn't get closer. Heenan came up big again at the end, with a block and then a kill on the last two points.
"At first, we weren't mentally as focused as we have been in other matches," said Morgan, who was second on the team with 10 kills. "I think that we really turned that around in the third, fourth and fifth sets. I think that's what really got us going."
KaUwila Lavea and Caitlin Segert each had five kills for Vanguard, with Segert adding one solo block and four block assists.
Kristen Markowitz had four kills.
Tosha Nunes had 18 kills to pace Great Falls, and Taylor Lucero added 17.
It won't get easier for the Lions, who have their GSAC home opener Tuesday night against Concordia, which is ranked No. 2 in the NAIA preseason poll.
Vanguard, which was ranked as high as No. 11 last year, is just out of the top 25. The Lions are the top vote-getters among "others receiving votes."
The top three teams in the NAIA poll — also including defending national champion and top-ranked Fresno Pacific, as well as No. 3 Cal Baptist — are all from the GSAC.
"We're not in an easy conference," Thomas said. "But this match really shows that this team, we have some new players but we have a lot of heart. We're going to fight for every match, because this is a tough conference, and we want every match."