Dons go the distance to take out Los Alamitos in CIF opener

Asked to describe his team’s emotional five-set, first-round playoff victory over visiting Los Alamitos, Santa Barbara boys volleyball coach Chad Arneson said it was a “grind.”

The Dons dug themselves out of a 2-1 deficit in sets at home and pulled out a dramatic 18-25, 25-10, 23-25, 25-20, 16-14 victory in their Division 1 opener at an oven-like J.R. Richards Gym.

In the fifth set, Santa Barbara broke a 14-14 tie on a Los Alamitos foot fault violation and Holden Ploch blocked the Griffins’ 6-7 Zach Radner for the final point to earn the Dons a spot in the second-round on Thursday against defending division champion Mater Dei. Mater Dei also won a five-set home match against Long Beach Poly.

Thursday’s second-round match will be in Santa Barbara starting at 6:30 p.m.

“It’s a grind, that’s what Division 1 volleyball is, especially the first match,” said a relieved Arneson. “That’s probably the toughest one going into the playoffs. We were just able to get down and grovel and find a way to stay composed.”

It wasn’t easy against a Los Alamitos team that had two big middle attackers in Radner and 6-6 Matt Schnitzer. Making things more challenging for the Dons was the fact they were without the services of starting opposite hitter Casey Slaught. He was struck in the head by a spiked ball during pre-match warm-ups and felt woozy.

Slaught’s absence was felt in the first set as the Channel League champions (20-7) appeared out of sync.

But they regrouped in the second set and dominated the Griffins (20-9), the third-place team out of the Sunset League.

Ben Reisman filled in for Slaught and played well. He finished with seven kills and two big service aces.

“I give him props for coming in a playing good volleyball,” said Arneson.

“He’s been really clutch all season,” said outside hitter Nick Clark.

Clark had a huge part in the victory. He came up with several key kills on the left side, made some clutch digs and gave setter Gavin Trudeau some good passes to work with. He finished with a double-double of 10 kills and 11 digs.

“He just quietly gets things done,” Arneson said. “He’s got that beach presence. Today he pretty much was our MVP of the match.”

Clark used a beach-style, off-speed flick shot to give Santa Barbara the lead for good at 19-18 in the fourth set. In the fifth set, he recorded a huge side out to tie the score at 11-11.

“We had a slow start, but we made some changes and picked up our defensive intensity and passing and turned things around,” said Clark about his team’s play.

The outside hitting of Clark, Tristan Fauntleroy (team-high 13 kills) and Reisman was crucial for the Dons because of Los Alamitos’ size advantage in the middle.

Fauntleroy had a few impressive straight-down hits. In the fifth set, he crushed an overpass to give the Dons a 14-13 lead. He was also clutch down the stretch in the fourth set.

“I thought Tristan Fauntleroy stepped it up for us,” said Arneson.

Radner and Schnitzer combined for 27 kills for Los Alamitos, with Schnitzer putting away 15 and Radner 12.

“They’re big, they’re good,” Clark said. “We had to find a way to keep (the ball) away from them.”

“They’re our bread and butter all year,” said Los Alamitos coach Mike Whitcomb, who played on national championship teams at UCLA.

Outside hitter Austin Arcala led the Griffins (20-9) with 19 kills.

Arcala’s tough serve capped a late four-point run to rally the Griffins to a comeback win in the third set.

Asked what he thought was the difference in the match, Whitcomb replied, “Inches.”

The Griffins had a point taken away when the two officials disagreed on a call at the net early in the fifth set. Los Alamitos was ahead 5-3 when the head official called for a replay. Santa Barbara tallied the next point to knot the score at 4-4.

“Probably the home court advantage for them,” Whitcomb continued about the outcome of the match. “In my opinion, we’re two pretty evenly matched teams and they just got a couple more points than we did.”

Arneson agreed the home-court advantage helped his team.

“In the end, home court comes into play,” he said. “That’s something we earned and that was useful for us.”