Whittnee Nihipali is only a sophomore.
But the Shadow Ridge outside hitter played like a veteran Friday.
Nihipali had 17 kills, including a huge winner during a 50-second rally in the opening set, to help the Mustangs to a 25-23, 25-19, 27-25 win over Bishop Gorman in the Sunset Region final at Arbor View.
Shadow Ridge (27-12) advances to next week’s Division I state tournament. Gorman (26-14) will meet Foothill (15-24) in a play-in match at 6 p.m. Monday at Chaparral for the final berth at state.
The Mustangs, state runners-up a season ago, will be the first to say the work isn’t done.
“All year long, the goal was to play for November 14, not for just a league title or a regional one,” Shadow Ridge coach Karissa Guthrie said. “Winning state is the goal, period.”
Shadow Ridge played like a team on a mission, after Bishop Gorman came out of the gate quickly in the opening game. The Gaels scored the first four points of the match and appeared ready for the fight, but the Mustangs shrugged off the slow start and went toe-to-toe with the rest of the way.
With Shadow Ridge holding a 23-22 advantage in the first set, Nihipali ended the night’s longest rally with a kill through the heart of the Gaels defense, and the Mustangs went on to win the set.
“To win a rally like that at the end of a set is huge,” Guthrie said. “The point could have swung either way, but the girls hung in there. Whittnee has been our go-to hitter all season, and that play was big.”
Nihipali, with only two kills in the first set, spearheaded the Mustangs’ charge in the second set with seven kills, including four straight during a Shadow Ridge six-point spree. However, it was Madyson Louisignont’s smash that sealed the set and gave the Mustangs a 2-0 advantage.
The final set saw the Mustangs race out to a four-point lead, but Bishop Gorman wouldn’t quit. Kills by Vashti Cunningham and Abbey Archumbalt helped a Gorman spurt that gave the Gaels a three-point edge at 22-19. But two costly illegal rotation calls against Gorman helped Shadow Ridge rally and the Mustangs finished the sweep.
Nihipali added 17 digs and five aces for Shadow Ridge.
“For a 15-16-year-old to want to be a leader is special,” Guthrie said. “Last year she was a role player and this year she’s certainly stepped up her role.”
Eadara Files added 33 assists, seven digs, four kills and four aces for the Mustangs, and teammate Kizzy Rodriguez added 23 digs. Kamryn Ramirez chipped in 12 digs and three aces for Shadow Ridge.
Vashti Cunningham had 16 kills for Gorman, and teammate Sydney Lobato had 27 assists, nine digs and four kills. Alysia Nielson added 12 digs, and Archumbalt notched four kills and two blocks for the Gaels.