Long before Sasha Bylsma and Brett MacDonald became a virtual unstoppable duo on the court at Arroyo Grande High, they went against each other during recess at Branch Elementary.
As first graders, playing on a net that was no more than 6-feet high, they would build the foundation for a friendship and volleyball connection that would stretch over the next decade.
In March, the two combined forces again for their last league game. It ended like every league game before it — with a win. The victory over SLO High clinched Arroyo Grande’s sixth-straight PAC 8 title and marked the 45th straight win for the pair that has been contributors on the varsity team since freshmen.
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Four seasons. No league losses.
For their accomplishments this season, Bylsma and MacDonald have been named The Tribune’s 2017 County Volleyball co-Players of the Year.
Ready Since Birth
The first time Arroyo Grande played SLO High, MacDonald battled injury, a hostile crowd to put on a masterful performance to pull off the win on the road. After the game, Arroyo Grande coach Laurel Allen wasn’t surprised.
“Since he was born, he was ready to play sports,” Allen said.
MacDonald is the son of Dwight MacDonald, the recently retired Arroyo Grande athletic director, which means he grew up in the gym. And he showed promise on the volleyball court early. Brett MacDonald, who has started at libero since he was a freshman, tells the story of when he was 8 years old and Allen asked him to stick around for the varsity practice following a volleyball camp.
“They were one player short, so she put me in the back row,” MacDonald said.
When the game started, a 6-foot-5 outside hitter smacked a ball in MacDonald’s direction. He stuck out his arms, closed his eyes, and somehow was able to make contact for the pass.
“Everyone was freaking out, and I was like, ‘Oh, I like this sport.’ It was cool. It hurt really bad, but it was cool.”
MacDonald became the starting libero his freshman year and never looked back. Along the way, he became one of the best defensive players in the county.
“One thing my coach and I always like to say about Brett is that the other team always knows not to serve to him... but somehow he just attracts all the volleyballs,” Bylsma said.
And he did it while also being a key member of Arroyo Grande’s PAC 8-champion tennis team.
Quick hands, quick feet
In volleyball, the hitters get all the glory. Who doesn’t love a powerful kill? But if it wasn’t for the setter putting the ball in a good spot, the hitters would be swing at nothing but air. That’s where Bylsma comes in.
His quick feet and lightning-fast sets can go in any direction with precision, whether he’s looking that way or not. Bylsma, easily the best setter in the area, credits playing more sand volleyball and offseason training for helping to improve his foot speed.
“And I pride myself on getting every ball with my hands,” Bylsma said. “Some players are lazy and try to bump it. I would rather try to get a double set.”
Bylsma also goes the extra mile in the classroom. His 4.7 GPA ranked him second in his class and earned him a spot as the Class of 2017 salutatorian. He didn’t fulfill his goal of becoming a college volleyball player, but he plans to play as much as he can for the club team when he enrolls at UC Berkely in the fall to study environmental policy and engineering. Like Bylsma, MacDonald won’t be playing college volleyball, either. He will attend St. Mary’s on an academic scholarship and the co-captain of the Eagles mock trial team hopes to attend law school after that.
This year, their final year on the court together, it was the combination of of chemistry, athleticism and intelligence that make MacDonald and Bylsma so deadly.
All it takes is a look, Bylsma said, and he knows what MacDonald is thinking — “We need to go right now and get a kill. I’ll get you a pass.”
“That’s just the trust we have,” Bylsma said. “I can count on him any time.”
The crowd that came out to watch the pair capture their fourth and final league title was the biggest they had ever seen, MacDonald estimates. They both agree it was a season highlight.
Losing in five sets in the quarterfinals of the CIF-Southern Section Division 3 playoffs wasn’t the way either wanted to end the season, but MacDonald said he can rest easy knowing it was one of the best runs in program history made with “an awesome group of guys.”
Bylsma will miss his friends and that feeling he gets before the game.
“You just get pumped up ready to go, knowing you have this undefeated streak on your back, ready to crush everyone,” Bylsma said. “That is just an all-time high for me.”
But it’s what hangs high above the court, four years of excellence first formed on that short elementary school net, that really gives Bylsma pride.
“That is pretty humbling,” Bylsma said.