It may have been two teams straddling the middle of the road in the Golden State Athletic Conference, but the women's volleyball units from No. 16-ranked Westmont College and host Vanguard University, ranked No. 18, are also among the top NAIA programs in the country.
Perhaps fittingly, the road to success for the victorious Lions on Tuesday night was funneling their offense as close to dead center as possible.
Sophomore middle blockers Sarah McKinny and Stephanie Flores combined for more than half of Vanguard's kills to key a 16-25, 25-21, 25-13, 25-18 GSAC triumph that lifts the Lions (14-5, 3-3 in conference), into fourth place in the eight-team conference.
McKinny, a 6-foot middle blocker out of Dos Pueblos High in Westmont's Santa Barbara County neighborhood, had a season-best 15 kills, while hitting .609 and adding a team-best five block assists to lead the hosts.
Flores, a 6-1 sophomore from Yucaipa who entered the match ranked sixth on the team in kills, added 10 kills, hit .333 and chipped in two block assists to round out the Lions' centers of attention.
"We know [Westmont senior] Ciara Turner is a great middle, but we wanted to challenge her," Leja said. "She got us a few times [10 kills, just one off the pace of the Warriors' kill leader], but I think in general, our middles had good vision, turned the ball over and scored a lot."
McKinny, who called the victory a huge confidence boost for her squad, said it was merely a matter of taking what the Warriors gave her.
"I was just moving the ball around," McKinney said. "I hit left, then they moved left, so I hit right. The goal is to keep it in the court. When I see an open spot, I put it there."
It was more than directional, however, as McKinny blended full swings with soft tips and off-speed roll shots to consistently find a hole in the soft middle of the Westmont defense.
"Even we don't know what she is going to do with a set," Leja said. "She jumps so high and has such a natural feel for the game, she can get up and see the open court and make her decision [where to play the ball] at the last minute."
The McKinny-Flores combination was complimented by 6-2 junior opposite Jessica Neves, the Lions' leading offensive weapon who after recording just one kill in each of the first two sets, came on to finish 11kills and a .296 hitting percentage. Neves also had three block assists and one solo block, helping the hosts post an 8-5 advantage in team blocks.
Leja said altering her rotation after the first set helped create more favorable matchups and she credited her team with as complete a performance as it has produced all year.
"This was a huge upset for us," Leja said after Westmont fell to 14-5, 2-4, as both teams came in having lost three of their last four to conference powers Concordia (ranked No. 1), Biola (No. 3) and The Master's (No. 12). "Westmont had been in the top 10 all year until today's poll came out. And they beat us at home last year, which was really hard. I think we were ready to make [the upset] happen. We have the talent to do it, but the girls had not put it together yet. This was the first time they all showed up and they all played at a high level."
It was Westmont, however, that was a plateau above in the opening set, as Turner had five kills and dynamic junior outside hitter Madison Serrano had three, including two on booming bics from the back row.
But Serrano was then virtually shut down, recording a negative hitting percentage in the second and third sets, before finishing at .000 for the match with a mere seven kills in 27 total attacks.
Vanguard freshman setter Myranda Cunningham had 26 assists and two of her team's three aces, while junior libero Kelly Heenan, a Newport Harbor High product who began her career at UC Santa Barbara, amassed 25 of the Lions' 63 digs, the latter six more than the visitors.
Charlotte Heerlyn, a 6-2 sophomore outside hitter had eight kills in 19 swings to hit .368, while Rachael Barker, a 6-0 sophomore outside hitter, added five kills and two block assists.
"I think our team is coming closer and closer together," McKinny said. "This is a huge win for us. It shows we're on the road to success."