West Ranch boys volleyball matches deepest playoff run, falls in CIF-SS semifinals

West Ranch defenders Neiko Pittman (8) and Zack Drake (6) knock down a shot by Saddleback Valley Christian at West Ranch on Wednesday. Dan Watson/The Signal

Hosting a CIF-Southern Section Division 2 semifinal playoff game on Wednesday, the West Ranch boys volleyball team eyed it’s fourth straight playoff win and ninth straight as it faced off against the No. 15 ranked team in the country Saddleback Valley Christian, according to MaxPreps.com.

Traveling a hard-fought path after defeating Dos Pueblos, Thousand Oaks and Bishop Alemany in the first three rounds, the 2018-19 Wildcats team matched the furthest any West Ranch boys volleyball team has ever gone. Falling in three sets, 25-20, 25-18, 25-19, the Wildcats magical season came to an end.

“My boys played the way that we want to play,” said West Ranch head coach Brandon Johnson. “We played hard, we played aggressive and today it wasn’t quite enough. One game does not minimize what the boys have accomplished this year, basically matching the furthest the school has even gone.

“We had tournaments where people would ask where we were from, so this group of boys put this school on the map for volleyball and have set such a high standard for the program moving forward. I’m so unbelievably proud of them and every single thing that they have accomplished.”

In a first game full of service errors on both sides, the Wildcats took an early 7-4 lead after Zack Drake came leaping from the back row with a thunderous kill.

The Warriors came storming back going on a 5-0 run to take the lead 11-8, forcing Johnson to call a timeout in hopes of stopping the bleeding.

Both teams jostled for the lead, but the Warriors played a clean brand of volleyball, forcing the Wildcats into multiple unforced errors down the stretch to take the first game 25-20.

“That team just did not make very many errors at all,” Johnson said. “We are a team that has been known to make errors, that’s just what we do, but against a team that doesn’t make any errors, it’s just really hard to string points together. We just didn’t play clean enough and they played very very clean throughout almost the whole entire match.”

Saddleback Valley Christian carried over the five-point first game win and built an early 8-3 lead to begin the second game.

Adjusting on the fly, it was the Warriors, not the Wildcats, who piled up the errors in the second game, committing four errors within the first 26 total points while the Wildcats didn’t commit a single one.

Alex Miller and Spencer Birchall stepped up and answered the call. Miller launched himself time and time again to make kill opportunities while Birchall did it with his serving, hitting two of his three aces in the game.

“The reason we have been so successful all year is because we have everybody contribute when they are on the court,” Johnson said. “We have fantastic players that we can count on at every position. You are going to notice some people some sets and others in other sets, so we are very confident in every single player contributing. They all had their moments they just didn’t have their moments at the same time today.”

Birchall’s second ace of the game pulled the Wildcats within two points of the Warriors, down 15-13, and after a Drake kill the Wildcats only trailed by one point.

The Warriors regrouped and scored six of the next seven points, ending the second game on a 10-4 run.

Hitting their stride in the third game, West Ranch seemed determined to avoid the shutout as Neiko Pittman and Johnny Buchanan answered their coach’s call, powering the Wildcats offense.

“I told them before the third set, that if this is our last set of the year I want us going out playing as absolutely hard as we can,” Johnson said. “Whether that means making mistakes or not, I just want us to play absolutely hard. I thought we did that and like I said it just wasn’t quite enough. That’s okay because the first set, second set, third set and this match did not define our season. It ended our season, but it didn’t define what we accomplished this season.”

Jostling for the lead tied 9-9, the Warriors delivered three kills in-a-row forcing a Wildcats timeout.

Clawing their way back, the Wildcats got within one point of the Warriors down 15-14 and tied it after a Buchanan ace.

Saddleback Valley Christian ended the final game like it did the second game, pulling away with a 10-5 run to complete the sweep.

Buchanan ended the day with 24 assists and two aces, Drake led the team with 11 kills and Birchall added 11 digs and three aces.

Ending the season with their fourth straight undefeated Foothill League title and matching the deepest run the boys volleyball team has ever made in the playoffs, the Wildcats season came to a close on Wednesday, but the impact that they made will never be forgotten.

“I’m not sure I knew what to expected coming into the year with so many players that had very little court experience on the varsity level and they blew away my expectations,” Johnson said. “Going into next year, the sky’s the limit with this team. I think that we are so talented and we are going to be so deep next year. I don’t think that this is the last semifinal that we are going to see and people are going to know about West Ranch volleyball.”

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