Senior outside hitter Keanu Morrison called classmate Ronan Paulsen the funniest guy on the Arroyo Grande High boys volleyball team.
Interim coach Kevin Hitchen had another role in mind for the 6-foot-5 middle hitter.
“Ronan right now is the X factor for our team,” Hitchen said. “He always puts up a big block, but if he gets going offensively like he did today — which he is more than capable of — we can be very good.”
Paulsen had eight kills and four blocks, Morrison added a match-high 12 kills, and the Eagles pulled within five wins of a fourth straight undefeated league title with a 25-23, 25-20, 26-24 sweep over visiting San Luis Obispo on Tuesday.
“It’s a higher level of game against them because they are our league rival,” said Paulsen of the Tigers, whose only two losses in the PAC 8 this year are to the Eagles. “We were able to turn it on when we really needed to.”
Arroyo Grande (16-5-2, 6-0) hasn’t lost a league match since 2011, although there was some worry heading into this season following the graduation of standout setter Jack Empey, outside hitter Cameron Arnet and middle hitter Andrew Midyett.
“I was a little nervous about how our sets would be, and that would change how our hits would be,” Morrison said. “I didn’t know if we’d be able to play at an elite level, but our guys have really stepped up and I’m really proud of them.”
It was a head-scratching loss to the Eagles for San Luis Obispo (12-6, 5-2), as the Tigers led 19-15 in the first set and 21-17 in the third but couldn’t convert when it mattered most. Costly errors doomed San Luis Obispo in both games, including a violation for moving before the serve on match point.
“Honestly, it’s just” Arroyo Grande, coach Manny Carter said. “We’ve done really well against Mission, Righetti — the other strong teams in our league. We lost the first set to Righetti but bounced back to beat them. We’re able to do it … you just have to do what you can do and not try to do it all.”
Conner Howard shrugged off a tough serving day to add eight kills for the Eagles. The 6-4 senior also got a momentum-shifting solo block on a San Luis Obispo kill attempt as part of a five-point run by Arroyo Grande to turn a 21-17 third-set deficit into a one-point lead.
“He made some mistakes, but without him, we don’t win that game,” said Hitchen of Howard, who also had three kills in the final frame. “Those are big-time volleyball plays that he made.”
John Duffy had a team-best seven kills, Nick Attala added five, and junior Bowen Schwoerer dished out 22 assists for the Tigers.
“A couple points could have gone either way, but it was one of those matches where they wanted it a little more,” Carter said. “But we’ve got the parts. I mean, if (Arroyo Grande) is the third-ranked team in our division, then I like our chances at CIF.”
The Eagles are ranked third in the most recent CIF-Southern Section Division 3 poll behind El Segundo and Cathedral despite starting a sophomore libero in Brett MacDonald and two new varsity setters in sophomore Sasha Bylsma and senior Hunter Roberts.
“We’re young,” Hitchen said. “We’re relying on a pair of sophomores in some big spots.
“But our libero, Brett, is playing, in my opinion, out of his mind right now. There’s plays we shouldn’t be able to save but he comes in like Superman.”
And then there’s the Joker in the middle, with Paulsen keeping the team huddles between points light and fun no matter the score.
It was his play down the stretch Tuesday that turned the score in Arroyo Grande’s favor, and the added dimension has the Eagles looking at the playoffs in a different light than during the offseason.
“I’d say we can go as far as, well, I don’t want to make too many promises,” Paulsen said with — what else — a laugh. “I’d just say that we have a very good chance of going very far as long as we keep the chemistry that we have right now and keep building on it.”