Coming down to the wire, the West Ranch and Valencia boys volleyball rivalry lived up the hype as the Wildcats traveled to Valencia High School for the Vikings’ Senior Night in the Foothill League regular season finale on Wednesday.
Down 2-1 in games, West Ranch came together as a team and pulled out a come-from-behind win on the road, winning in five games: 21-25, 27-25, 24-26, 25-22, 15-11.
“I’m proud of my boys and happy for them,” said West Ranch head coach Brandon Johnson. “I can only do so much. I can only prepare them so much. When adversity comes, there’s only so much I can do. It’s up to them to figure it out on the court.
“These kids are so talented when they believe in themselves. The end of that third set was so weird and I don’t know if I’ve even seen anything like that before, but we didn’t act like it was the end of the game. We knew that we had to win three sets anyway and they went and did it. I’m proud of them for turning it around.”
Heading into the match, West Ranch (24-7 overall, 10-0 in Foothill League) had already clinched its fourth straight Foothill League title, but might of had their 40-game undefeated Foothill League streak on their minds and it showed, as Valencia took an early first game lead at 10-6 and never relinquished it to take the first game.
The Wildcats fought back in the second game behind junior setter Johnny Buchanan’s serves to go ahead 5-2 early.
After trading points back and forth, West Ranch went on a 6-0 run to gain an eight-point advantage at 13-5.
Valencia (19-20, 7-3) didn’t back down and fought tooth and nail to get within a point at 22-21 thanks to junior Dominic Gonzalez’s heated serves.
Gonzalez finished the game hitting two of his four aces on the night along with a number of key blocks and kills.
After a Tristin Clint kill, Buchanan came up favoring his left hand as he went up to block Valencia’s Dorian Ellis’ shot, but powered through the injury.
“This game especially has been circled on our calendar since day one, knowing that our last league game at their place which is one of the hardest places to play in the valley,” Buchanan said of the intensity that he entered the match with.
Feeding off their starting setter’s will, the Wildcats were able to come away with a narrow two-point win to tie the match at one game apiece.
West Ranch’s Neiko Pittman came out on fire serving three aces in a row to give West Ranch some breathing room up 3-0 early in the third game.
“I don’t really know,” Pittman said of his play in the third game. “I just felt like I needed to be back out there on the service line for my team. Personally, I’ve been struggling with serving and I don’t want to let my team down so I really got in the mindset, focused and just put some lasers out there and put some pressure on it.”
Pittman continued his spirited play by making timely blocks and delivering thunderous kills to keep his team ahead.
Pittman ended the match tying with Clint in kills with 12 and led the team with four blocks. He also had five aces on the day.
Then something uncharacteristic happened to West Ranch.
Up 24-16 with game-point in hand, Valencia rattled off the last 10 points of the game with senior Tyler Clyde’s furious serves tying the game at 24-24 and eventually stealing the game 26-24.
Clyde finished with two aces and 11 kills on the night.
With everything on the line in the fourth game, neither team held a lead of more than three points, seemingly going point-for-point.
Up 23-22, junior outside hitter Zack Drake and Pittman delivered the final two blows to even the match up at 2-2 and force a fifth and decisive game.
With everything all squared up and both teams needing 15 points to win the match, Valencia held an early 4-2 lead, but let West Ranch climb back even with them after a service error and a net violation.
The Wildcats took advantage of Valencia’s misfortune by scoring five of the next seven points, forcing Valencia head coach Kevin Kornegay to call a timeout down 9-6.
Feeding off each other from the fourth game, Drake, Pittman and Buchanan powered their team forward as West Ranch took the match 15-11 on a Valencia service error.
“My emotions are all over the place,” Pittman said. “It was crazy out there on the court. I’m super excited. We have been working so hard for this and it feels so good to finally have earned it and gone undefeated through league. It’s like overwhelming, it’s like surreal. It’s crazy and awesome. I love it.”
With West Ranch already clinching first-place in the Foothill League on Tuesday, Valencia finishes second and both teams will have to wait until Friday when playoff seedings are announced.
“We have been talking about playing with intensity for quite a while and we have lost to a lot of teams that we were better than, we just didn’t match their intensity,” Kornegay said. “Tonight we brought it and we had an opportunity to win game two and sweep them, so we are right there. I’m happy with how we performed.
“Going into playoffs it feels good to take them down to the wire and it shows that we are ready to compete with some people, hopefully.”