Fourth-ranked Dos Pueblos and fifth-ranked Laguna Beach reprised their exciting CIF quarterfinal matchup of last season Friday night. To the chagrin of the host Breakers, the result was the same, as the Chargers advanced to their second consecutive CIF semifinal in five pressure-packed games. Game scores were 25-21, 25-21, 19-25, 16-25, 15-10.
From the start, the serve passing, led by libero Derek Martinez, allowed Ryan Beall and Tim Baxter to keep all the Chargers’ weapons working. Ben Johnson dominated the middle of the net with 13 kills, and he was ably supported by Will McCracken (12), Beall (six), Sean Park and Jordan Dyer (four apiece). Dyer and Baxter led a spirited effort on defense with nine digs each, and Beall added seven. Perhaps best for the Chargers was the emergence of Cody Zoesch, who had five kills and three blocks, many at crucial moments.
In game one, the Chargers edged ahead for the first time at 11-9, and pushed the result all the way to the finish despite being called for five mishandled sets (to none for the Breakers). Game two was more of the same. Park had the key kill from his weaker left side to keep a slim lead at 21-19, and once again Dos Pueblos made no mistakes late to give Laguna Beach a chance.
Dos Pueblos jumped out to a 10-6 lead in game three, leading the visitors to hope for a quick finish, but the Breakers had other ideas. Laguna Beach cut down on its errors, its jump servers (particularly Shawn Merz, 21 kills, five aces) got locked in, and the Breakers pulled even at 15, and finally edged ahead at 19-18. Beall missed the side line by inches, and the Breakers blocked Johnson for the only time the whole night to the delight of the crowd, as Merz served out the game with the last four points.
Game four was over early, as Laguna beach jumped out to 7-2 and 12-5 leads, turning the rest of the game into an exercise in futility. Dos Pueblos coach Chris Hughes seized the opportunity to give Zoesch, McCracken and Dyer a couple of points rest and a drink of water. It was a subtle move by the underrated Hughes, and it paid dividends.
With all the momentum on the side of the home team, Dos Pueblos started game five with a bang. A Breakers hitting error was followed by stuff blocks from Beall and Zoesch for a quick 3-0 lead. A second later, an effective serve from Beall caused an errant pass and a lift on an attempted one-handed set. With a 5-1 lead, all the Chargers had to do was to run their offense. The Breakers could make no headway, but had hope as Johnson blasted his final kill of the night to 12-7, but rotated back to serve, forcing him to leave the final points in the hands of his mates. Beall was blocked, but Baxter came right back to his senior, and Beall put away number 13. Beall then assumed setting duties, and stayed with the lone senior in the front row as Park got the score to match point. The Chargers would only need one chance as Zoesch came up with a solo block in the middle and the Dos Pueblos bench erupted with joy.
The PA announcer constantly reminded the crowd that Merz was headed for UCLA and that his teammates have spots at Pepperdine and USC. Perhaps the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation teams might scout the Channel League a touch more.
Next up for the Chargers will be an even more formidable opponent, No. 1 Valencia. The Chargers may be great at spiking volleyballs but they’re not so good at calling coin tosses, having lost for the third time in a row and forcing another road trip, to Valencia on Wednesday night. Can the road warrior Chargers do it again? One thing Hughes can count on is that they will do their best.
Will Beall is a Dos Pueblos High parent.