Playing sparingly in his sophomore and first year playing varsity boys volleyball for West Ranch, setter Johnny Buchanan patiently waited behind senior setter Tyson Drake for his time to shine as the starting setter.
Growing up watching Tyson and playing alongside his brother Zack Drake at Legacy Volleyball Club, Johnny was able to observe what it took to be a leader on the court and through hard work, passion and dedication Buchanan was named the starting setter and a season later, win the All-SCV Boys Volleyball Player of the Year award.
“I knew I had to fill Tyson’s shoes and they were big shoes to fill, since he had been starting for the past couple years on varsity,” Buchanan said. “I had always seen Tyson play since I was in seventh grade through club volleyball and playing with his brother Zack. I’ve have known Tyson and looked up to him as a setter so getting to fill his shoes was kind of a big opportunity for me.”
Shouldering the responsibility of being the team’s starting setter in his junior year, Buchanan excelled in almost every statistical category. His precision hitting led him to finish with 86 kills and led the team with 56 aces, while his length and agility earned him 51 blocks and 136 digs for second and third on the team, respectively.
His biggest contribution to the team came at his natural position, setter as he paced the team and finished the season as the Foothill League leader in assists with 839 on the year.
“The goal was to win league again and go further in playoffs than we did last year,” Buchanan said. “Which we obviously accomplished this year and we did much more. Putting in that work every practice and keeping the focus on the goals kind of made the All-SCV Player of the Year Award happen on it’s own. That was never really a goal for me personally, it was always my goal to help the team do better and so I did what I could to accomplish the goals for the team and this just came along with that.”
Putting his own ambitions and well-being behind the betterment of the team and ultimate goal, Buchanan battled injury thought the year. He dealt with knee problems during the regular season, a dislocated thumb in the regular season finale against Valencia and a bruised shoulder in playoffs that made it almost impossible to not feel the pain every time he hit the ball.
Pushing through it all, Buchanan and the Wildcats won their fourth straight undefeated Foothill League title and earned a top seed in the CIF-Southern Section Division 2 playoffs.
Hosting Dos Pueblos at home, West Ranch swept the Chargers in three sets to earn Buchanan, head coach Brandon Johnson and the entire Wildcats team their first playoff win.
“That was a big milestone for him obviously and us as a team,” Buchanan said. “Now thinking about it, I guess it was my first playoff win too. Sophomore year was my first year on varsity and then we lost. I guess it was all of our playoffs wins and then just being able to have three of them was really good and kind of exceeded our expectations for the season, for sure.”
The Wildcats followed the first round win with back-to-back revenge games against Thousand Oaks and Bishop Alemany, two schools that had beat them earlier in the regular season, before falling to the eventual CIF-SS Division 2 Champions Saddleback Valley Christian.
Returning the core group of the team next season, the Wildcats are poised for yet another Foothill League title run and a deeper run into the playoffs as Buchanan hopes.
“We definitely can expect to win league,” Buchanan said. “I think we have that because we are not losing as many people as the other teams are and I think that’s always a goal and an expectation at this point. That’s the No. 1 goal is keeping our league streak up. Losing in the semifinals in Division 2, just wanting to make it deeper than that into the finals and make a run into state for my senior year would be ideal.”
Buchanan has a pretty busy summer filled with tremendous volleyball opportunities before returning for his senior season at West Ranch. Buchanan will join Legacy Volleyball Club and compete in the Junior Olympics in the first week of July before heading east to South Carolina for USA Volleyball A2 Camp for the last week of July.
“I’m hoping to come out with another medal because we won gold last year in our division last year,” Buchanan said of the performance in the 2018 Junior Olympics.
Spencer Birchall, West Ranch, junior
The Wildcats junior libero did a little bit of everything for the team contributing mightily and translating defensive stops into instant offense. Finishing first on the team with 353 digs and 611 serves received, Birchall served as the most reliable line of defense for West Ranch throughout the season. With a deceptive serve, Birchall even chipped in on the scoring with 47 aces on the season for third on the team.
Zack Drake, West Ranch, junior
Serving as one of the primary offensive weapons for a lethal West Ranch attack, Drake led the Wildcats and the Foothill League with 342 kills in 99 games played, according to MaxPreps.com. Perfecting his craft, Drake was able to find holes in the defense to finish second on the team with 51 aces. Defensively, Drake was second on the team behind Birchall in digs (163) and serves received (437).
Dorian Ellis, Valencia, senior
Missing a third of the season, Ellis began the 2018-19 season with a bang, recording 14 kills in his third-best offensive performance of the season against West Ranch. Playing 72 games on the season, which was the fifth least on Vikings, Ellis’ high-motor and intensity landed him third on the team with 204 kills out of 395 attempts translating into a kill percentage of 51.6%.
Jacob Knudsen, Valencia, junior
The junior outside hitter literally took great leaps and bounds in the 2018-19 season, producing almost four times as many kills than he did his sophomore year to lead Valencia with 333 kills and 27 aces. A stout defensive player, Knudsen paced the Vikings with 257 digs and 596 serves received.
Gavin Leising, Hart, junior
The 6-foot-8 junior was a terror in the middle for opposing teams with his length and hitting ability. Leising finished third in the Foothill League in kills (260), leading Hart in both kills and in blocks (45), according to head coach Loy Mueller.
Jake Meyers, Hart, senior
Second on the team in kills with 215, Meyers stepped his game up in his final year playing for the Indians. Improving in various facets of the game, Meyers was a lethal server and solid defender to complete his senior year with 28 aces and 105 digs.
Tristin Clint, West Ranch, senior
Clint quietly had a breakout season for the Wildcats serving as the the second and third option on offense for the Foothill League Champions. He finished the season second on the team in kills behind Drake with 184 and was third on the team with 312 digs and fifth with 24 aces.
Tyler Clyde, Valencia, senior
Top three in kills (247), aces (23) and blocks (69) on the second-place Foothill League team, Clyde stepped up in his senior season improving in every integral facet of his game.
Ben Kash, Valencia, senior
A bona fide senior leader, Kash was a constant communicator on the floor and sneaky defender finishing his senior season second on the Vikings team in both digs (218) and serves received (590).
Shane Kelley, Canyon, senior
The Cowboys senior team captain, Kelley served as the team’s voice with his boisterous leadership and enthusiasm for the game. A deceptively agile defender, Kelley led the team with 308 digs and chipped in on the offensive side of the ball with 14 aces.
Neiko Pittman, West Ranch, junior
Making a huge impact in the middle of the court, Pittman was instant offense for the Wildcats anytime he was injected into the lineup. An all-around player, Pittman led the team in blocks with 52 (23 solo), 149 kills and 18 aces in his second year playing at the varsity level.
Ryan Sloan, Canyon, senior
The senior Cowboys setter finished the season recording 557 assists, 102 digs, 31 kills and 24 aces and played a vital role in the Cowboys finishing .500 or better for the first time since the 2014-15 season.
Canyon — Aaron Berko, senior
Golden Valley — Russell Karimee, senior
Hart — Sawyer Tengberg, junior
Saugus — Daniel Compton, sophomore
Valencia — Daniel Ra, junior
West Ranch — Daniel Bisla, senior