Westmont volleyball
The Westmont women’s volleyball team, seen here at a recent match, toughed out a 25-22, 18-25, 25-17, 23-25, 15-11 win over Life Pacific on Friday to advance to the GSAC Championship. (Felipe Garcia / Noozhawk file photo)

SURPRISE, Ariz. — Playing in their final GSAC Tournament, top-seeded Westmont volleyball (22-5) punched their ticket to the Conference Championship on Friday night after an emotional five-set win against four-seeded Life Pacific.

After splitting the first two sets, one of Westmont’s key players left the match with an injury in the third.

Down 2-1 after three, the Warriors refused to let their tournament run end prematurely. First, Westmont rallied in a closely-contested fourth set to force game five. Then, in the final set, Westmont took control early and never looked back, ultimately clinching their spot in the GSAC Championship with a 15-11 win.

All-GSAC star Lexi Malone led Westmont with 19 kills, while fellow All-GSAC attacker Phoebe Minch followed with 14. All-GSAC setter Keelyn Kistner, who was forced to play in a 5-1 offense for the first time all season, led Westmont with a season-high 41 assists.

“That’s just pure heart,” said Westmont head coach Ruth McGolpin. “We literally practiced the 5-1 one time during the season. This week, we practiced playing sets to 15 multiple times, and as it turned out, we needed to be ready for set five today.

“Keelyn was unbelievable. It was so special to see her, being a senior, lead that team in sets four and five in a 5-1. It was a gutsy performance.”

Westmont initially led 14-13 in a competitive first set, but back-to-back kills from LPU followed by a Westmont attacking forced McGolpin to call timeout trailing 16-14. Twice later in the set Westmont got back within one point, but the Santa Barbara Warriors never fully closed the gap on the San Dimas Warriors.

Life Pacific ultimately ended things with Hannah Caddow’s fifth kill of the set to take game one 25-22.

In set two, Kistner opened up with a four-point service run, allowing Westmont the chance to exhale and settle into their game. As their blocking and serving returned to expected levels, a kill from Malone capped off an early 13-7 run going into an LPU timeout.

Up 17-10, a 4-1 run by LPU forced McGolpin to call a timeout as the advantage shrunk to 18-14. LPU got as close as 20-17, but kills by Sara Krueger and Malone propelled Westmont to a set-clinching run as they tied the match with a 25-18 win.

In set one, LPU’s attacking percentage was well over .300, but in set two, Westmont held LPU to a hitting percentage of .079. In set three, LPU’s attackers came back with a vengeance to take control early. Four quick kills from LPU forced McGolpin to call timeout down 6-2, and from there, the deficit only grew.

Later, LPU’s eighth kill of the set forced McGolpin to quickly use her final timeout, this time with Westmont trailing 14-6. LPU led by as many as 11, leading 18-7 with an attack percentage near .350. One the play that put Westmont down 18-7, freshman Alexa Shiner suffered an injury after colliding with one of the net’s poles in an attempt to keep the play alive. While Westmont is hopeful Shiner can recover in time for Saturday’s match, the setter was unable to return in the semifinal. From that point on, Westmont’s typical 6-2 offense turned into a 5-1 with Kistner at the heart of it.

A late 10-5 run by Westmont led to Life Pacific taking a timeout up 22-16, but the run was too little too late for Westmont who dropped the swing-set by a score of 25-17.

Still, down their final life in the semifinal, Westmont’s confidence never wavered.

“One of our mantras this week was ‘have faith, not fear’,” assured McGolpin. “We wanted to live by our confidence. In set three, after Shiner went down, we started to build some momentum. Even though we lost that set, we showed that we still had confidence in each other and built each other up. They wanted to do it for Shiner.”

In set four, Westmont led early by a few points, holding Life Pacific two or three points back consistently as the set entered double-digits. Then, back-to-back momentum-swinging kills from LPU led McGolpin to use her first timeout still leading by one. Immediately after the timeout, LPU tied the set with another kill.

With a day-saving response, a kill from Krueger and a pair of kills by Malone put Westmont back up 14-11, leading LPU to call a timeout of their own. LPU got back within two at 19-17, but once again Westmont responded with three of their most emphatic kills of the match. First, a kill from Taylor Distelberg gave Westmont the serve back, and then, two more kills from Krueger put Westmont up 22-17 with a fifth set in sight.

LPU made the Westmont faithful hold their breath by pulling within one at 24-23, but with the game on the line, Malone’s 16th kill forced a fifth set with a 25-23 win.

In the fifth set, Westmont would not be denied. After LPU opened the final set with a kill, Westmont responded with a trio of kills from Jessie Terlizzi, Distelberg, and Minch to take a momentum-shifting 3-1 advantage. Life Pacific never again tied the game.

Malone’s 19th kill caused the two to switch sides with Westmont leading 8-5, before back-to-back attacking errors for LPU put Westmont up 11-6. At that point, the anticipation began to build on Westmont’s bench.

In the end, with Westmont up 14-11, Kistner set Minch one final time before the All-GSAC star landed the match-clinching kill. The bench emptied as the Warriors roared to the heavens, knowing that their final GSAC game in program history, will be the Championship match on Saturday night.

“We left it all out on the court,” said Malone, who posted an absurd attack percentage of .514. “One of the things this team is great at is playing with passion. We were playing for our setter who got injured, and we were leaving it all out there for her.

“This is a really supportive group of women, and I’m so glad this weekend isn’t over.”

On Saturday at 5 p.m. Pacific Time, Westmont will play for the Golden State Athletic Conference Championship. Links to live coverage are available on the Westmont Athletics website.