Harvard-Westlake High's bid to return to the Southern Section 3-A Division boys' volleyball final fell one match short as the Wolverines lost to Esperanza, 15-4, 8-15, 16-14, 15-3, Wednesday night in a semifinal at El Dorado High.
Harvard, the defending 3-A champion, blew a big lead in the third game and then fell apart in game four, enabling Esperanza (16-2) to advance to Saturday's final. Esperanza will face undefeated and top-seeded Royal (21-0) at 5 p.m. at Cerritos College.
It was a bitter loss for Harvard senior setter Chris Hopkins, one of four returnees from last year's championship squad.
"We probably should have beaten this team," Hopkins said. "We didn't play our best game tonight at all. This is real disappointing."
Harvard Coach Jesse Quiroz echoed those sentiments. "We had our bad night of passing," he said. "We had too many errors out there."
The Wolverines (17-5) still could have won had they not blown a 6-0 third-game lead. "I thought we had the third game," Quiroz said. "If we had won the third game, I think it would have been a different story."
Esperanza dominated early behind the play of Paul Nihipali, Brad Goldstine and Ryan Delaney, each of whom finished with 18 kills.
Esperanza forged a 6-2 lead in the first game and put it away by breaking down the Wolverines' normally steady passing game.
It was Esperanza's passing that turned shaky in game two, however, and Harvard took advantage. With the Aztecs ahead, 8-7, Griffin Whitney sparked a four-point service run to put the Wolverines in the lead, 11-8.
From there, the blocking of Hopkins, Greg Young and Steve Keck enabled Harvard to win the game.
Harvard kept that momentum in the third game, building a 6-0 advantage behind several Esperanza errors. But that lead didn't last long. Applying more pressure with their hitting and serves, the Aztecs stormed back in front, 12-8.
Esperanza blew a pair of game points at 14-13 and Harvard came back to tie on a kill by Matt Sebree (15 kills). The Wolverines could not pull in front, however, and the Aztecs won the game on a cross-court kill and a netted spike.
Frazzled, Harvard collapsed in the final game.