By Tony Ciniglio
For The Signal
Neiko Pittman had ice on both of his knees.
Jonny Buchanan wrapped his shoulder with an ice bag.
Tristin Clint could barely walk and did not finish the match while the rest of the West Ranch boys volleyball team battled other various ailments.
“We’re the wounded Wildcats,” West Ranch coach Brandon Johnson said. “We’re injured, banged-up and bruised, but we have fought hard throughout these playoffs.”
West Ranch once again dug deep and produced a gritty 18-25, 25-23, 25-22, 27-25 victory over Alemany on Saturday night in the CIF-Southern Section Division 2 quarterfinals at Valencia High, advancing to the semifinals for the first time since 2016.
“All of us are so beat up. Like I cannot believe it,” West Ranch’s Colin Murphree said.
Maybe it was only fitting that Murphree had the momentum-switching play, considering he was filling in for middle blocker Daniel Bisla, who was unable to attend the match according to Johnson.
Murphree delivered three blocks, including a massive block to tie it 24-24 and fend off a set point in the fourth game to give West Ranch a chance to close it out.
“I was so focused on wherever the ball was going,” Murphree said. “In that moment, you just cut the crowd, focus on the where the setter and hitter were going. My hands were there. I gave it a weird spin and made them work for it.”
One round after avening an early-season loss to Thousand Oaks, West Ranch again found redemption after atoning for a March 6 loss to Alemany.
West Ranch (26-7) advances to Wednesday’s semifinal to host top-seeded Saddleback Valley Christian, which beat Dana Hills in its quarterfinal. Alemany finishes its season at 24-6.
“We had something to prove. We wanted to get revenge, bro,” Pittman said. “We did not want to lose to these people again, especially because we know how hard we are working and how much we’ve improved.”
Zack Drake led the West Ranch charge with 18 kills. Clint finished with 14 kills. Pittman totaled seven kills and seven blocks. Buchanan had 41 assists and seven digs. Spencer Birchall contributed 13 digs.
And the energy seemed to be increasing throughout the match.
“We wanted to be more excited for the person who bounces the ball than the person who did bounce the ball,” Buchanan said.
Alemany gave West Ranch all it could handle in what Johnson called a “flawless first set.”
Valencia native Mason Briggs came out firing for Alemany and delivered a top-tier performance with 12 kills, four aces and two blocks.
“I grew up here. My cousins went to Valencia. This is my hometown. This felt like my home gym,” said Briggs, who said Valencia was his home school. “And I’ve played with a lot of the West Ranch guys in club.
“We played well, but I felt we could’ve done more. I think we got stuck in a couple of rotations, and West Ranch is such a solid all-around team with good passers, good pins, good middles. And they played well and had a big crowd.”
The first game felt like a sucker punch. West Ranch realized it needed to ramp up the energy.
“We started off super slow. It felt like we were asleep during warmups,” Pittman said. “We knew we had to pick it up if we wanted to advance to the semifinals. So we started screaming. We got that energy up.”
West Ranch is aiming to make its first CIF final. And to be doing it with essentially the same squad as last year’s team that was ousted in the first round resonates with this group.
“Last year we did not even make it out of the first round of the playoffs, so this definitely feels a lot better,” Drake said.