Wildcats battle, but Panthers claim NorCal opener

Seniors leave program on solid foundation
By: Jim Linsdau, Sports Editor
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Coming off a 10-23 season and heading into the Division I Sierra Foothill League for the first time, the 2018 Whitney High girls volleyball had a big challenge ahead of them.

But the Wildcats met that challenge in a big way, finishing as runners-up in the SFL and making it to the CIF NorCal Regional Division II tournament before wrapping up a solid comeback season.

Although seeded No. 7 in NorCals and Chico No. 10, the Panthers came ready to play.

“(Chico) brought their A game … it was just light’s out serving. Their serves really put us out of system,” said Whitney head coach Jeff LaShell as to the Wildcats’ 3-1 loss to Chico Tuesday. “When you can’t get your big guns slinging it’s a pretty tough haul. They’ve got some girls that can terminate when they get up and hit.”

Whitney won the opening set 26-24 behind “big gun” Kendall Gimenez. The junior had at least four kills in the set and finished the match with a dozen.

Kaylie Honberger led the ‘Cats with 13 kills, finishing the season with a team-high 568. Gimenez and sophomore Maddy Miller finished in the top three behind Honberger.

But the 33-7 Panthers, who had beaten the Wildcats in an early-season tournament, came back to win the final three sets 25-22, 25-16 and 25-18.

“We didn’t have a particularly good service-receive, passing game tonight. I think it was (Chico’s) serves; their serves were just phenomenal,” said LaShell. “We knew it was going to be a hard-fought battle.”

Playing Chico in the High Sierra Tournament in Reno in September, Whitney lost 31-29 and 25-23. LaShell said it was some of the best volleyball he’d seen played at the high school level.

Tuesday was the final Whitney game for seniors Honberger, Kylee Stephens, captain Uriah Villa, Sydney Lukanich and McKenna Kelsey. However, they leave behind a solid foundation for the future.

Honberger also led the team in serving, but juniors Ana Mora and Aubrey Miller were also at the top of that list. Sophomore Raley Gillmore (111) was the leading blocker on the team and junior Makena Zajec (100) was not far behind.

Playing libero, Aubrey Miller was the team leader in digs and she, Gimenez and Honberger were tops in serves received. Mora was the team’s No. 1 setter.

“This team is an extraordinary group of kids. … Even when we were down by seven they were smiling at each other,” LaShell said with a laugh, indicating it wasn’t the same for the coaches. “We had good success this season with their attitude.”