The crowd, filling up approximately two-thirds of the San Luis Obispo High gymnasium bleachers, the majority in Tiger black and the rest in Phantom purple, rose to its feet in unison.
The match was tied at one set apiece and knotted at 26 points each, whichever team went up by two winning the crucial third frame.
For visiting Cathedral, coming off three straight CIF-Southern Section Division 4 championships, it was nothing more than another match in a long line of tight postseason contests.
For the San Luis Obispo boys volleyball team, with players who would later admit it was the most intense atmosphere they’ve ever played in, it was uncharted territory against a seeded opponent.
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The second-seeded Phantoms minimized errors and strung together runs when it mattered most, eliminating the home Tigers on Thursday in the Division 3 second round by scores of 19-25, 25-23, 28-26, 25-21.
“Honestly, despite a loss, this is definitely the best we’ve played all year,” San Luis Obispo coach Manny Carter said. “Feeding off the crowd, and just the way we’ve been practicing lately. Everyone was going hard every single day. They wanted this.”
The loss was to a favored opponent, but there was no doubt in the Tigers’ minds that this was an opportunity they let slip away.
“I’m really proud of my team, but it’s unfortunate,” said senior Shea McSorley, a four-year varsity player who went out with a match-high 18 kills. “We went really far and I’m proud we got here, but this was a team that I thought we could have taken a victory from. We just lost it ourselves.”
Added junior John Duffy, who turned in a 17-kill performance: “In the big picture, they didn’t beat us. We probably beat ourselves.”
The numbers show they are likely right.
San Luis Obispo (18-9) produced the two top kill leaders, held leads of five or more in two of the three sets it lost and had at least a one-point advantage once both teams reached 20 points in all four frames.
But 15 total service errors — compared to five for Cathedral (22-11) — and other unforced mistakes ended a postseason run that included 3-0 sweeps in the wild card and first round.
“It’s one of those things we’ve talked about all season; just being mentally tough,” Carter said. “Just being in games like this, we really weren’t used to it. Either we were getting smoked or we were beating somebody, and it was one of those matches where you have to show that mental toughness where you can win a 25-23 set or a 26-24 set.
“They clearly have been there, and we’re still learning.”
Alex Chai added eight kills from his spot in the middle, Bowen Schwoerer dished out 42 assists and Tanner Moore had 11 digs for the Tigers, who urged their classmates throughout the week to show up and help provide a home-court advantage.
The students did their part, bringing energy, noise and even a large school flag to the gym.
“That was by far the biggest crowd I’ve ever played volleyball in front of before,” Duffy said.
“Every regular season game this year we might have had five students in the student section. It was awesome to have some support tonight.”
Duffy was a steady source of offense throughout the night on the outside, as the 6-foot-2 junior recorded at least four kills in each of the final three sets.
“The kid’s focused,” Carter said. “He’s going to be one of the top players in the league next year, and this is probably the best match I’ve seen him play both offensively and defensively.”
McSorley also provided his usual array of thunderous kills and impassioned reactions, things the 6-4 Santa Barbara City College-bound outside hitter has brought to the Tigers the past four years.
That run is over, but he said he walks away proud that he and his team went down swinging.
“We kept working, and it showed with how far we got in CIF,” he said. “But it’s sad we got cut short.
“I’m still processing it. It’s going to be weird not coming in tomorrow to mop the floor and set up the net. It’s really therapeutic just to mop those straight lines. It was really calming.”