Last year, the Arroyo Grande High boys volleyball team’s third straight unbeaten league title wasn’t enough to give it a seed in the CIF-Southern Section playoffs, which set the Eagles up for a second-round matchup with a ranked Esperanza squad that boasted a Team USA youth squad member.
In 2015, Arroyo Grande’s 14-0 run through the PAC 8 has it seeded third with a legitimate expectation of making a sectional championship run.
It’s safe to say the Eagles are enjoying life in Division 3.
“Since the beginning of this year, we’ve expected to go pretty far,”senior Conner Howard said after Arroyo Grande’s opening-round sweep of Salesian. “Last year, I can’t really say I knew a whole lot about how far we might go or how well we might do, but this year, we expect a lot.”
Howard had eight kills and two aces, Keanu Morrison added a match-high 13 kills, and the duo of setters Hunter Roberts and Sasha Bylsma combined for 33 assists as the Eagles surged past the Mustangs 25-16, 25-10, 25-13 on Tuesday in Arroyo Grande.
“Honestly, that team was kind of a pushover, but it’s the first round, so we didn’t expect a whole lot,” Howard said. “We knew we were going to get a home game because we’re high seeded, so we’re just looking forward to the next one.”
The Eagles (23-7-1) will face either Hemet or Alhambra in the second round Thursday after their convincing win over Salesian (11-16), which won a five-set match over Bishop Diego on Saturday in a wild card to advance.
Arroyo Grande jumped out to set leads of 7-1, 9-3 and 8-3, scoring five straight points and eight of the next nine after the Mustangs took their lone lead of the match — 2-1 in the second set.
“It’s exciting for all the players, especially the seniors are really pumped for that difference,” coach Laurel Allen said of the move from Division 2 to Division 3.
“It’s one match at a time and we’re focusing on what we need to do, but we’re hungry to go further. These players — the way they’ve practiced, worked hard and committed to each other — deserve to go to the finals.”
At the top of the bracket as the No. 1 seed is Ocean League champion El Segundo (17-5), with four-seed and Sunbelt League champion Paloma Valley (23-1) favored to be its semifinal opponent.
Cathedral (20-11) of the Del Rey League is seeded second, meaning it’s favored to be the Eagles’ possible semifinal opponent May 20 for the right to play in the finals May 23 at Cerritos College.
But that’s perhaps gazing too deep into the crystal ball, and Arroyo Grande doesn’t want to get ahead of itself.
“In Division 3, we noticed the only real difference is the school size,” Howard said. “Most of the teams that are seeded and ranked, like us, are basically the same as the ranked teams in the other divisions. So we still know we have to play as hard as we can.”
Morrison added seven digs, Brett MacDonald had six of his own and Evan Lalanne served three aces for an Arroyo Grande squad that didn’t drop a set in league play and was 7-6-1 against out-of-area opponents (includes tournaments).
“This year, the team is much more well-rounded,” Allen said. “Everyone can hit, everyone can play defense, and so, you’re not just reliant on a couple guys to do that.”
Allen also highlighted the play of Bylsma and Roberts, as the pair was tasked with filling the void left by longtime setter Jack Empey.
“We’ve never compared,” she said. “You say, ‘OK, these are our two setters,’ and you’ve seen Hunter and Sasha make a big huge difference with their consistency. They’ve done everything they’ve needed and been asked to do by their team this year, and exceed it.”
Regardless of the division, those contributions, which includes Bylsma’s three kills Tuesday, will be vital moving forward as the Eagles look to make it past the second round of the playoffs for the first time in this roster’s varsity career.
“We just want to cut down errors and keep playing at a high level no matter how bad the competition is or how good the competition is,” Roberts said. “We’re just trying to play to the level we knew we can play at and see how far we can go.”