BVB: Royals’ run to the CIF Final derailed by Esperanza in five sets


San Marcos and Esperanza made brilliant play after brilliant play in their slugfest of a CIF Division 2 boys volleyball semifinal Wednesday at the Thunderhut.

In the end, the visiting Aztecs converted a few more plays than the Royals and knocked out the division’s No. 1 seed in a five-set thriller, 21-25 25-22, 25-16, 25-22, 15-11.

It marks the second straight year Esperanza (27-6) has denied San Marcos (28-4) from reaching the CiF Final.

“For the most part, we played the game we wanted to,” San Marcos coach Roger Kuntz said. “Our middles were real effective, our outsides were good and our setter was just golden. … God dang, this team (Esperanza). we’ve had a tough time matching up with them the last couple of years. They’re that good.”

The Aztecs have an outstanding player in 6-7 senior and UCLA-bound Jake Arnitz, and he didn’t disappoint, hammering 36 kills. But Esperanza showed they are not a one-man team. Its back row played brilliantly. Libero Justin McGrath picked up 16 digs and defensive specialist Johnathan Auerbach had 14 digs. Conner Jordan was big in the middle (12 digs) and Ben Oxnard made plays all over the court, recording 12 kills and 15 digs.

Jake Arnitz of Esperanza digs a ball. Arnitz had 36 kills in the semifinal match.

Jake Arnitz of Esperanza digs a ball. Arnitz had 36 kills in the semifinal match.

“We love the fact all our guys stepped it up and not just Jake Arnitz,” said Esperanza coach Isaac Owen. “We are much more than Jake Arnitz, let me tell you. He’s one hell of a player, but Conner Jordan played great, Justin McGrath, Ryan Heller, Kevin Sowski, Ben Oxnard … We are not a one-man show. We are a good volleyball team.

“Overall, it was a great team effort. People need to know… Jake is one helluva player and probably one of the best I’ve coached, if not the best. But we got a bunch of other kids who stepped up.”

San Marcos star Shane Hauschild, who led the Royals with 26 kills, noted that Esperanza’s defense was a big difference in the match. The Aztecs thwarted several San Marcos scoring chances by picking up balls off the block or digging blistering hits.

“That was extremely frustrating,” Hauschild said. “I think the reason they beat us was, honestly, they played better defense than we did. They get touches on the block, dig it and set Arnitz on the outside and he’d kill it. That was frustrating. They just had more transition plays than we did. That’s what won them the game.”

Arnitz, who sat out most of the season with a back problem and returned just before the start of the playoffs, credited the defense for helping him out.

“It’s definitely been a struggle (for me), but my team is great,” he said. “In the fourth game I tweaked my back and they definitely helped out. They picked it up.”

Hauschild, who is headed to UCSB, said the Royals were seeking revenge for last year’s defeat in the semifinals.

San Marcos' Cole Wenal beats an Esperanza blocker for a kills.

San Marcos middle Cole Wenal beats an Esperanza blocker for a kills. (Presidio Sports Photos)

“We thought we had a chance with our home crowd. But they did a good job shutting down our crowd in the second and third games.”

San Marcos got its crowd going midway through the first set after a slow start (down 0-4). The Royals caught Esperanza at 17-17 on back-to-back attacks by Baker Johnson (17 kills). A sideout by Arnitz and successful dink by Oxnard gave the momentum back to the Aztecs. A ace by Auerbach put them ahead 20-17.

Johnson then ripped one off the block for a San Marcos sideout. A Esperanza hitting error and a kill by Hauschild tied the score at 20. Arnitz blasted for another sideout before the Royals went on a five-point run to win the set. Jake Castanha had two huge blocks in the run, including one for the winning point.

“I was disappointed with the way we started, but I sure wasn’t disappointed with the way we finished that first set. That looked like us again,” said Kuntz.

“They’re a good team,” Arnitz said of the Royals. “No matter how much you’re up, you can’t let up at all. That team just stepped it up in the first game and put it to us. No excuses. They outplayed us in first game.”

Esperanza rebounded in the second set. Kills by Arnitz, Jordan and a couple of calls against San Marcos enabled the Aztecs to open up an 18-13 lead en route to tying up the match at 1-1.

The Aztecs went on a five-point run in the third set to take a 15-7 lead. Jordan finished the set with a kill in the middle. Heller, Esperanza’s setter, had 61 assists.

Down 2-1 in sets, the Royals appeared to be in trouble. They fell behind 7-3 in the fourth set, but they dug deep and fought back.

“We knew we weren’t going to go down,” setter Christian Widmer (53 assists) said. “Especially since they beat us in the semis last year. We knew we had to dig in deep and pull out everything, give it all we got and leave it out on the court, which we did. I’m proud of my guys.”

After Arnitz scored from the back row to tie the score at 17-all, Hauschild sided out to give San Marcos the lead for good. San Marcos libero Sean Estabrooks made a spectacular dig to help the team win a rally for a 20-18 lead. Hauschild then put away an overpass of a Widmer serve. Later, Johnson put a ball away after a nice bump set by Nick Rockwell. Johnson finished the set by smartly swiping the ball off Esperanza blockers.

The fifth set went back and forth. San Marcos missed on a couple of transition opportunities to take a two-point lead. Esperanza took the lead for good at 12-11 when Oxnard ripped a ball off the block. A hitter error in the middle by San Marcos on the next play gave the Aztecs a 13-11 lead. Oxnard made another big play at the net and Jordan finished the match with a deep spike from the middle.

“I think every point was hard fought,” Kuntz said. “(Esperanza) played incredible defense. Flip a coin, it was toe-to-toe all the way through. We’ve been able to grind it out at the end (of close matches) when the other teams made a couple of mistakes and we made some big plays. We’ve been kind of used to that this year and we were just on the other end of it this time.”

Shane Hauschild of San Marcos hits over a triple block by Esperanza during the CIF Division 2 semifinal match. (Presidio Sports photos)

Shane Hauschild of San Marcos peaks through a triple block by Esperanza, trying to find an open look.

Royals celebrate after winning the fourth game.

Royals bench celebrate during comeback in the first set.