‘Balers return to CCS, but fall in three games to Homestead

San Benito's Erik Rodriguez tries to get the shot off over two Homestead defenders Thursday night during the first round of CCS playoffs.

No. 4 Homestead takes three games (25-14, 25-18, 25-17) from No.
4 San Benito in the CCS quarterfinals Thursday night; San Benito
head coach Luis Espinoza announces he’s not returning to team next
HOLLISTER – The difficult part for Roy Powell, and for perhaps every other member of the San Benito High boys volleyball team on Thursday night, was that it’s over.

“I don’t really care about the game,” Powell said. “I just care about my friends and how they feel.

“I’m just gonna miss all of these guys. We worked up a bond and it’s gonna be so hard to break when they leave.”

Following a 23-win season in which it went undefeated in the Tri-County Athletic League, the No. 5 Haybalers returned to the Central Coast Section playoffs for the first time in eight years Thursday in Hollister, but couldn’t match the intensity, or the sheer size, of visiting No. 4 Homestead (28-8).

With a roster that boasted 10 of 14 players above 6-feet tall, including 6-foot-9 middle Doug Rathbun, the Mustangs powered its way past San Benito in three games, 25-14, 25-18, 25-17.

The ‘Balers finish its season at 23-8 and winners of the TCAL at 14-0. Homestead, meanwhile, advances to the CCS semifinals where it will play top-seeded Los Gatos (42-3) on Saturday.

“It’s difficult losing,” said senior Adrian Rodriguez, who had 21 assists, seven digs and five blocks Thursday. “But we had a really good season so I’m not too disappointed. I wish we could have gone further, but …”

It was the last match for San Benito’s seven seniors, as well as the last match for head coach Luis Espinoza, who announced afterward he wouldn’t be returning next season. With plans of completing his teaching credential as well as earning his masters, Espinoza described this past season as memorable.

“Looking at this season, all I was expecting them to do was make it to CCS,” said Espinoza, who alerted his players of his departure earlier this season. “Make it a memorable year, a memorable season, and they did that.

“I wouldn’t expect any more from them than what they gave me tonight.”

Shorthanded entering the match, San Benito struggled in the first set as Homestead built a 13-5 lead behind outside hitters Luke Rosener and Andrew Leamon, each of whom had two kills apiece to start.

Rodriguez said the team was somewhat “jittery,” chalking it up to postseason butterflies. But San Benito rebounded midway through the opening set as Powell and Brian Hawks delivered a pair of kills, while Luis Bradley brought the set to within five points with a tip at the net that found no-man’s land on Homestead’s half of the court.

“We knew they were gonna play hard,” said Bradley, who had five kills, nine digs and a service ace in the match. “It was just if we could play up their level or not. There were some times when we did and other times where we just couldn’t keep up.”

Trailing 17-12, San Benito was dealt a significant blow on the ensuing volley when it lost the services of outside hitter Erik Rodriguez, who led the team this past season in kills (261). The match was stopped for approximately 10 minutes after Rodriguez collided with a teammate at the net and knocked one of his teeth out.

Rodriguez was said to be OK, although the ‘Balers were unable to rebound and eventually lost the opening set, 25-14.

“He lost a tooth,” said setter Adrian Rodriguez, Erik’s brother. “I was kind of down, but coach told me to get the ball to the players. They’re gonna do their part and they did.”

Said Espinoza, “We played with a lot of adversity. Our backs were to the wall, and we could have said, ‘We’re done.’ But the kids just played their hearts out.”

The second and third sets, although losses, were far cries from the first set for San Benito. A raucous Hollister crowd seemed to sway on every point, while kills by Powell and Javier Castaneda, and blocks by Hawks and Rodriguez, kept the ‘Balers knotted with Homestead early on. However, San Benito couldn’t sustain the Mustangs’ output, and seemed to hit a scoring wall each time it reached 14 points.

In the second set, the ‘Balers trailed 16-14 before Homestead, led by Leamon, opened up a 21-14 lead. In the third set, San Benito sat tied with the Mustangs at 14-all before the visitors rifled off nine straight to grab a 23-14 lead.

“As soon as we got to 14 points, they just started coming back,” said Powell, who finished the match with five kills, seven blocks and a service ace.

“We all stepped up our game and we just did the best we could without losing our cool.”

San Benito had previously lost in two games (25-13, 25-21) to Homestead at the Charger Classic in late March, although Mustangs head coach Matt Hoffman said he could see much more fight in the ‘Balers on Thursday night, perhaps because of the do-or-die scenario only the CCS playoffs can bring.

“We had a really great week of practice and I was hoping it’d carry over, and it did,” Hoffman said. “But [San Benito] showed a lot of fight.”

Senior defensive specialist Danny Ruiz finished the match with a team-high 16 digs, as well as two kills and an ace. Castaneda added 11 digs, a team-high six kills and two blocks, while Hawks had two kills and four blocks.

For Espinoza, though, who sends off seniors Bradley, Hawks, Castaneda, Ruiz, Joseph Flores and both Adrian and Erik Rodriguez, the sport of volleyball has come full circle. Initially coaching the junior varsity team as a favor to a friend, Espinoza took over the varsity program in 2006 without much knowledge in the sport.

On Thursday after the match, he thanked his players and coaches JT Temperino and Keith Tungate. He leaves the Haybalers with a TCAL title and a CCS berth.

“Anytime they come back to this gym, they can look up at that banner,” Espinoza said. “They can see the numeral ’09’ up there.

“I’m just happy for them.”

HS – 25 25 25

SB – 14 18 17

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