Entering Tuesday’s CIF-Southern Section boys volleyball Division 2 first-round playoff game against Dos Pueblos at West Ranch, the No. 5 ranked Wildcats knew the precedent that it had to set.
Finishing the season atop the Foothill League for the fourth straight year was a great milestone and an incredible accomplishment, but after last season’s first-round loss, the Wildcats put any doubts to rest after a three-game sweep of the Chargers, winning 25-20, 25-15, 25-17.
“Last year was an early exit and you never expect to lose,” said West Ranch head coach Brandon Johnson. “You never expect to get knocked out early, but I think we had a lot of high expectations last year that didn’t really come through.
“When we came into this year, we came in with the idea that not a single player was replacing a player from last year. The players on the team this year are going to be the best players they can be and this year is completely different. Last year’s playoff exit doesn’t mean anything to this team. This team has the sole focus of getting better and trying to win the match at hand.”
Coming out on fire, West Ranch took an early 3-0 lead after two Johnny Buchanan aces, forcing an early timeout by the visitors.
Answering with a four-point run, Dos Pueblos regrouped and used sound play to take its first lead of the match 4-3 and again 6-4.
Junior Neiko Pittman answered the Wildcats’ call, per usual, with his high-flying energetic style of play, catapulting the Wildcats ahead 11-9.
Pittman finished the match with six kills and an ace.
Dos Pueblos kept it close by staying within three points, but after a huge Buchanan kill off a rebound, fell behind 17-15.
Both teams traded four-point runs forcing a West Ranch timeout up 21-20. Out of the timeout, the Wildcats went on yet another four-point run and closed out game one on a hitting error by the Chargers.
“If we play the way we want to play it’s a very aggressive style, so errors are going to come with being aggressive,” Johnson said. “As long as it doesn’t go into multiple points in a row, I can live with mistakes as long as we are being aggressive. The problem was that they got three, four, five points in a row and that kind of put us in a spot where things got a little shaky.”
West Ranch found its stride in the second game as junior Zack Drake found his rhythm and started to make his presence known with huge hit after hit. Along with Spencer Birchall’s three aces in a row and stout defensive skills, the Wildcats built a 8-2 lead.
“When I’m playing well, balls aren’t dropping and other people contribute to that too and that’s good for our team,” Birchall said.
Drake led the team with 14 kills and Birchall led the team with 16 digs and four aces.
“Johnny Buchanan, my setter, was giving me really really nice sets,” Drake said. “And also looking before hitting and looking at the blockers where they are and figuring out where to place the ball. Just being smart and aggressive.”
Almost shooting themselves in the foot, West Ranch went point-for-point with Dos Pueblos. Of the Chargers’ finals 13 points in the frame, nine of them were unforced errors by the Wildcats.
Fending the Chargers off by scoring nine of the final 13 points, West Ranch took the second game easily 25-15.
The third game was more of the same. West Ranch built an early lead and deflated all hopes of a Chargers comeback, forcing them to call two timeouts within the first 14 points after a Birchall ace down 6-3 and the other after a Drake kill to make it 9-4 in the Wildcats’ favor.
Still, West Ranch’s errors mounted and kept Dos Pueblos in the game.
Pulling away down the stretch, West Ranch brought on some of its subs and took the third game and the match on a Dos Pueblos hitting error 25-17.
West Ranch advances to play Thousand Oaks in the second round at 6 p.m. on Thursday at Thousand Oaks.
”Last year was a little tougher,” Drake said. “We have to keep our mind focused especially playing against Thousand Oaks, who we lost to previously this season.
“Definitely serving and serves received that was our main struggles last time we played them. I think if we continue to practice hard and keep that same mentality we will do great.”