Earlier this week, San Luis Obispo High boys volleyball coach Manny Carter wasn’t shy about saying the Tigers were “going to play against the big boys now.”
After Thursday night, the biggest of them all awaits.
The Tigers swept visiting Rio Mesa of Oxnard 25-11, 25-18, 25-19 in the second round of the CIF-Southern Section Division 2 playoffs to advance to the quarterfinals, which will be held at 7 p.m. Saturday at Westlake, the division’s No. 1 overall seed.
The Warriors (19-1) swept Canyon of Anaheim 25-16, 25-15, 25-22 on Thursday after earning the 31-team bracket’s only first-round bye.
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“It means a lot,” San Luis Obispo senior libero Jeremy Cleere said of advancing. “We have a good team coming up in the next round, so let’s try to keep pushing and doing what we can.
“We’re very excited,” Cleere said. “We have no expectations (taking on Westlake). They’re the top seed. They’re expected to go all the way through the finals and win out, and they’ll be at their home court. We’ll just be coming in with a lot of energy, and we’ll see what we can do.”
San Luis Obispo (23-2), which closed the regular season with the No. 8 ranking in the divisional poll after months of being balloted just outside the top 10, opened the postseason with a 25-17, 17-25, 25-18, 25-18 home win over Saugus.
The Tigers were more relentless Thursday, trailing just twice the entire match — giving up the first point in Game 1 and falling behind 6-3 in the third set before quickly rattling off a 4-0 run to take the advantage back.
“I’m very pleased,” Carter said. “This was probably one of our better matches.”
The last time the Tigers advanced to a divisional quarterfinal was 2004, when a group led by future NYU All-American Jonathan Wintermeyer came up short to Corona del Mar, 3-1. Carter also starred for that team as a senior.
Rio Mesa (17-7), the Pacific View League champion, had entered on a roll, having won 11 of 12 after a somewhat plodding start to the year, which included a 2-0, best-of-three loss to San Luis Obispo at the Tigers’ own invitational in March. San Luis Obispo went on to win the PAC 7 championship — a feat it has accomplished in at least a shared capacity all but once every year since 2001. The Tigers swept their season series against Arroyo Grande, the PAC 7 runner-up, before finishing their league slate undefeated.
That kind of unblemished track record wasn’t considered a given at the start of the season, as only three seniors in outside hitter Chip Blaney, Cleere and middle blocker Danual Moon were represented.
“To be honest, I really thought it was going to be a building-type year,” Cleere said. “Everyone kind of stepped into their roles.”
Leading the class of those who’ve emerged is junior outside hitter Nick Butier. Butier, who earned second-team all-PAC 7 and all-San Luis Obispo County honors as a linebacker this past football season, has translated his power and explosiveness to the court well, as he entered the second round averaging a team-leading 3.4 kills per game. The Tigers have also witnessed the continued maturation of middle blocker Sam Duval and setter Keilan Meertens, among other juniors.
“We’ve really gotten a lot better (since the opening of the season), and everyone has gotten a lot more comfortable,” Cleere said of the additions. “It’s been a good cohesion.”
Blaney had a team-best 11 kills Thursday, while Duval added nine. Meertens shelled out a team-high 33 assists.
“Balls are where they need to be, and guys are just putting them down,” Carter said of the Tigers’ offense. “The outsides are playing amazing.”
Westlake, the defending Division 2 champs, won the Marmonte League title at 14-0.
“If we serve how we served (in the second round), we may have a chance,” Carter said. “Who knows? Anything can happen.
“I wanted to get to the quarterfinals, and we’ve gotten there. Anything beyond that is a bonus. These guys have worked hard all year, and they definitely deserve to be where they are.”