Appearances are often deceiving. Other times they tell you the entire story.
No. 4-seeded El Diamante (27-4) led most of the initial set and looked like the stronger side in its CIF Southern California Division II Regional Tournament opener. Los Osos' outside hitter Ashten Smith-Gooden, however, looked like the most athletic player on the court and quickly took over the match.
Most of the Grizzly offense ran through the 6-2 power hitter. Many of her resounding spikes came from the same spot on the left wing.
El Diamante rarely had an answer.
Three Smith-Gooden kills powered a late 6-0 run by the No. 5-seeded Grizzlies to help steal the first frame, 25-23. Los Osos-Rancho Cucamonga (26-12) then opened Sets 2 and 4 on 9-0 runs as it cruised into the regional semifinals with a 3-1 (25-23, 25-18, 23-25, 25-10) victory at El Diamante High School.
"We knew about [Smith-Gooden] coming in," El Diamante coach Leslie Sorensen said. "She's such a dominant player. She's 6-2. She hits over the block straight down. I think we're a pretty good blocking team, but we can't match that height and explosiveness."
Smith-Gooden blasted an authoritative kill to open the match before a 6-2 run by El Diamante put the Miners in control at 7-4. The Central Section Division II champs held that three-point lead to a 20-17 score line until the power hitter fired off three more rounds to give her side its first advantage since leading 2-1. Natalie Creekmur then sealed the victory with an ace.
Three more kills and a block from Smith-Gooden bolstered the 9-0 Grizzly opening run in the second set. El Diamante never narrowed the gap closer than 15-11, and Smith-Gooden finished the Miners off by scoring five of her team's final six points of the frame for a 25-18 win.
"We were kind of all over the place on the back row," said El Diamante junior libero Bianca Pattani, who drew the tough assignment of digging out most of the power shots from her explosive opponent. "[Smith-Gooden] moved it around a lot. You just have to watch that ball and know in your heart that you're going to get it."
Another strong start from Los Osos in Set 3 didn't stop El Diamante from playing hard until the end. The Miners countered a 5-0 Grizzly run with a 6-0 run of their own. Rachael Schaefer began the charge with a kill and Madison Ekizian forced three more points from the service line to put the Miners up 11-9.
Smith-Gooden took her only breather on the bench all night with the set tied at 16-all. El Diamante only gained a two-point advantage at 21-19 with her out, and watched that lead quickly disappear at 21-21 when she made back-to-back kills after her return.
"I wanted to get all my girls some playing time," said Los Osos coach Franco Macchia about benching his best player in a key moment. "A lot of the parents drove up here to see their daughters play. This is the end of the season. Most of them are younger, so I wanted to get them some exposure in the state playoffs."
Katelyn Anderson, however, was not ready for the season to end just yet. She dug out two more attempts at a third consecutive kill from her opponent before extending the long rally with a tip, and ending it with a spike of her own.
The two battled each other for the set, with Smith-Gooden firing one shot into the net before tying the score at 23-all. But Anderson delivered the decisive blow, winning the set at 25-23 with a kill.
Unfortunately for El Diamante, the small victory only gave the Miners a brief extension to their season. El Diamante scored first in Set 4 before another 9-0 run by Los Osos put the match out of reach. Smith-Gooden launched five more kills as the Grizzlies cruised to a 25-10 victory and a ticket to the regional semifinals.
"In crunch time, I told my setter to get [Smith-Gooden] up in the air and she'll put the ball away and we'll get out of here," Macchia said. "We've got to get on that bus and be back by 1 [a.m.]."
Sorensen noted that her team struggled with passing most of the night, which stymied its own attack and prevented it from keeping up with the pace set by Smith-Gooden and the Grizzlies.
The Miners wrapped up a successful season with their eyes on accomplishing even greater things next year. El Diamante was led by a core of juniors, who will be a force to be reckoned with during their senior campaigns.
"We played with all our hearts and that's all that matters," El Diamante junior Lauren Torres said. "We all grew as a team. I'm really proud of my girls and I'm really happy with the way the season ended. It was a lot of fun."