The Royal Tournament in Simi Valley this past weekend served two purposes for the Arroyo Grande High girls volleyball team.
The Eagles, a young squad featuring five underclassmen and only three seniors, evidenced growth at the tournament, taking eighth place out of 32 teams.
But they also got to take a look at improved PAC 7 adversary Paso Robles — which is in the midst of its best early season in years and advanced to the gold bracket at the same tournament’s playoffs.
“They’re very powerful,” Arroyo Grande coach Ernie Santa Cruz said of the Bearcats. “They’re very strong on the outside and have good hitters.“We’re not as big or as powerful. We try to play ball-control defense and serve tough.”
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The Eagles did just that against visiting Paso Robles at James Gym on Tuesday evening, sweeping 25-14, 25-19, 25-23.
In the close third game, a Paso Robles serving error put the Eagles ahead 22-21. Arroyo Grande wouldn’t trail again.
“We didn’t serve that well, and our passing wasn’t what it should’ve been,” Paso Robles coach Terry Gutierrez said.
In the second game, Paso Robles rallied from a 9-6 deficit to take a 12-11 lead. Arroyo Grande soon took the advantage back but let the Bearcats creep to within 18-17 before taking a timeout, during which Santa Cruz reminded his players of their small-ball strategy.
“We’re not trying to win the game with one swing,” he said. “We’re trying to grind it out. We got out of sorts a little bit and started forcing plays.”
When the Eagles (12-2-1, 2-0 PAC 7) took the court again, they scored three straight points to take a 21-17 lead down the stretch. A booming Rachel Ventura block to establish a 24-19 margin all but sealed the game.
“We just kept it simple,” Arroyo Grande outside hitter Chelsey McKelvy said of the pivotal discussion during the timeout. “We just talked about passing the ball and not getting too far ahead of ourselves. That’s what’s working for us.”
McKelvy and Ventura, both seniors, each finished with team bests of 10 kills and two blocks.
Nicole Leger added seven kills, six digs and two aces in the win, and teammate Madison Ventura came up with 21 digs and three aces.
Last year, the Eagles went 28-3-1, advancing to the quarterfinals of the CIF-Southern Section Division I-A playoffs. Five seniors graduated from that team, including four All-San Luis Obispo County first-team selections. This year’s Eagles received votes in Monday’s Division I-A rankings poll.
The upstart Bearcats kept the first game close early, trailing just 6-5, but then found themselves down 19-9 on the way to the loss.
Still, though, Gutierrez said the Bearcats have reason to be encouraged by their resiliency, as the margin between the two teams got narrower with each game.
Paso Robles’ Tess Rountree finished with a match-high 13 kills, while Maritza Juarez added nine kills, and sophomore Kellie Reynolds distributed 29 assists.
Paso Robles (7-4-1, 2-1 PAC 7) is looking to build upon its 11-8 mark in 2008, which came after an 11-30 stretch the two previous years.
“It’s promising,” Gutierrez said of Tuesday’s showing. “This was probably our first very tough league match.”