Three straight undefeated league championships and 14 wins in a row — all by 3-0 sweeps — heading into Thursday’s CIF-Southern Section Division 2 second-round match against Esperanza, and the Arroyo Grande High boys volleyball team senior class had still saved its best for last.
And it still was not enough.
The fourth-seeded Aztecs and UCLA-bound Jake Arnitz withstood the unseeded Eagles, star setter Jack Empey and a boisterous crowd to win three closely contested sets and eliminate Arroyo Grande, 3-0, on its home court.
“We were right there, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” said Cameron Arnet, who played his final match alongside fellow seniors Empey and Andrew Midyett. “I can say that, especially for the seniors, we put our hearts out there. It’s our last game, but we’ll still remember it even if it’s a loss.”
Empey had 29 assists and five kills, and Arnet led with 10 kills for the Eagles, who had a chance in every set but fell 25-23, 26-24, 25-23.
“That’s the hardest we’ve played,” said coach Laurel Allen, who also got eight kills from Keanu Morrison and seven from Ronan Paulson. “You saw from the start, it could have gone either way. They all played hard and they knew they could play to that level, which was exciting.
“It’s the hardest way to go out, because they were so close. For the seniors, you want to keep going. We had some key passing errors, but overall, just the adrenaline and the play, I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
Arnitz, a 6-foot-7 outside hitter who spent time on the U.S. youth national squad, was as good as advertised. His swing radius and hang time made blocking him, no matter how many bodies the Eagles employed, a difficult task.
“We knew that they had that one guy, so we practiced double blocking and stacked blocking,” Empey said. “We knew that they had other players, too, so we knew we had to come out and play our best game.”
Arnitz finished with 15 kills, including three in a crucial stretch late in the second set, when the Aztecs swung a 24-21 deficit into a 26-24 victory to take a commanding 2-0 lead.
According to Esperanza coach Isaac Owens, Empey and the Eagles provided a much tougher test than initially anticipated.
“I don’t think that we expected them to be as good as they were,” Owens said. “I mean, they brought a lot of muscle and played fearless. No. 11 (Empey), I love No. 11. I can’t say enough about the job he did.”
Following the heart-wrenching second-set defeat, Arroyo Grande fell behind 8-3 in the third before an emphatic kill by Arnet sprung the Eagles back into action — much to the enjoyment of a packed gym and a student section that stayed on its feet from the second set on.
“It’s way better than league, that’s for sure,” Arnet said of the atmosphere. “The fans definitely helped out. When we get momentum, the fans show it up there as well, and it helps us out as a team.”
Added Empey: “It was awesome to see the student section and everybody coming out to support us. It’s a great last game to have if I had to have one.”
Esperanza led the whole way in the third, until Morrison appeared to tie the set at 20 with a kill down the left alley.
The officials covering the line — albeit on the Arroyo Grande side of the court — called the shot good, however, he was overruled by the one standing on the Esperanza half, across the width of the court.
The main official opted to go with the latter, giving the Aztecs a 21-19 advantage.
“They made bad calls on both sides, so it evened out,” said Empey, shrugging off the unfortunate turn of events. “The moral of all athletics is not to worry about the refs.”
An Esperanza net violation and a Midyett kill staved off two match points, but Morrison’s kill attempt went wide on the final rally.
“I don’t have any regrets,” Empey said. “We left everything on the floor tonight. It was the most fun match I’ve ever played.”
The Eagles finish the year with a 22-6 record. The Aztecs (22-5), winners of the Century League, are on to the quarterfinals — knowing it took their all to get there.
“He had to play as hard as he could play tonight for us to get a win, and he hasn’t had to do that all year,” said Owens of his star, Arnitz. “That’s a compliment to (the Eagles). That says a lot about their program and what they did tonight to us.
“And, boy, they had us. A couple calls go this way or that way, and I think we’re still playing.”