Prior to the start of a postseason match at Arroyo Grande on Tuesday night, the Saugus High girls volleyball team huddled together and let out a chant.
“Saugus on three — one, two, three — Saugus!” Centurions players shouted in unison.
But it was the Eagles who have really been used to one, two, three — as in 3-0 sweeps. This year, amidst its fourth straight undefeated PAC 7 league season, Arroyo Grande lost just two games compared to 36 wins during a 12-0 stretch.
Saugus brought plenty of suspense to James Gym, for a change, but the host Eagles still prevailed in a five-game thriller, winning 25-13, 20-25, 25-13, 22-25, 15-11 in the first round of the CIF-Southern Section Division I-A playoffs.
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“When it got to the fifth game, we all kind of got the mentality that it can’t end here,” Eagles sophomore middle hitter Kylie Anderson said. “And that’s not the end for us. We want to keep going.
“We weren’t quite used to it,” Anderson said of the match’s closeness. “But once the reality sunk in that (the season) could end here, in the huddle, we got to it that we had to believe in ourselves and be able to get through it.”
Arroyo Grande (20-2) did just that, taking a 3-0 fifth-game lead on an Anderson block that prompted a time out by Saugus (22-10-1), an at-large team from the Foothill League.
“We just said, ‘Dig deep,’” Eagles junior libero Madison Ventura said. “Everyone played their best when their best was needed.”
Although the Centurions forced 3-3, 4-4, 5-5, 6-6 and 7-7 ties in the fifth and decisive game, the Eagles pulled ahead 11-8 on a block by senior outside hitter Chelsey McKelvy and hung on the rest of the way.
“You work all year,” Arroyo Grande coach Ernie Santa Cruz said. “They know what they have to do (in a close match). It’s a matter of them doing the job, and they did it. We wanted to get to five first, then 10, and we did that. They played really hard, with a lot of heart. You can’t really coach a (match) like this; hopefully, you’ve prepared them all year for it.”
The Eagles advanced to face Rancho Cucamonga, which beat Trabuco Hills 3-0 on Tuesday.
A coin toss will determine the host site, Santa Cruz said.
Rachel Ventura led the Eagles with 22 kills, three blocks and four aces, while McKelvy added 20 kills. Anderson had five blocks, and Maggi Keffury had 47 assists. Nicole Leger and Madison Ventura chipped in 20 digs apiece.
The Eagles, who finished the regular season ranked No. 8 in the division, raced to an 8-2 lead in the first game, triggering a Saugus time out, but the Centurions continued to struggle and were passing too much, falling behind 16-4. With the Eagles up 24-9, though, Saugus suddenly rattled off four straight points, suggesting Game 2 might be different. It was.
Saugus opened the second game on a 6-2 tear, and kept adding to its lead, pulling ahead 11-5. Arroyo Grande battled back to tie the score 18-18, but gave up the next three points on the way to the defeat. Arroyo Grande regained its swagger in the third game, rallying from a 3-0 deficit to surge in front 10-4 en route to the win.
“We played tough when we needed to,” Santa Cruz said. “Both teams played great defense.”In the fourth game, Arroyo Grande came back from an 8-4 hole to tie the score 15-15. Saugus then scored three straight points, though, and held on after a 20-20 deadlock for the victory.
Arroyo Grande opened the season with five underclassmen on its roster.
“For the younger players, it’s more excitement than nervousness,” Anderson said of the team’s playoff mentality. “The seniors don’t really tell us about last year; they say this year’s our year.”
Arroyo Grande graduated five seniors — including setter Olivia Trudeau, the San Luis Obispo County Player of the Year — from last year’s squad that went 28-3-1, reaching the quarterfinals.
“For some of these girls, it was their first time in CIF (competition),” Santa Cruz said. “It’s a lot different. There are higher stakes, and everyone is more focused. Players want it more on both sides. It’s a learning experience, and I think we learned a lot.”