Capistrano Valley Serves Crow to Its Critics

If it makes it any easier, Orange County volleyball types, go ahead and use some salt and pepper. Or a sprinkle of sugar. Or a big, fat dollop of whipped cream. Anything to make those words you're now required to eat a little more palatable.

That's right. The Capistrano Valley boys' volleyball team--the same team some of you bad-mouthed for not participating in last week's Orange County Championships, the team that supposedly was scared to put its No. 1 preseason ranking on the line--showed up at Esperanza High School Tuesday night and played, quite possibly, the match of the year.

Don't believe it? Ask Esperanza's power hitter Paul Nihipali, who hung his head after the game saying the 13-15, 15-4, 15-10, 19-17 loss "ruined the whole season" for him. Ask Esperanza setter Chris Pitzak, who before the game said this one match would determine bragging rights through the summer season on the beach.

As high school volleyball goes, No. 1 Capistrano Valley vs. No. 2 Esperanza turned out to be the classic it was hyped to be. Die-hard volleyball brains might argue that description, of course. The match didn't go five games. No one did a handspring into the stands to dig a ball. The referee didn't once have to duck a fly-away kill, etc.

But the match certainly had its inherent drama.

For one, three players from each team--Capo's Aaron Garcia, Eric Seiffert and Evan Alexander, Esperanza's Nihipali, Pitzak and Brad Goldston--play for the same club volleyball team. This means, nine months of the year, these six are sweating together on the same side of the court. They've played together in tournaments around the country and in Canada. They've spent months of Sundays competing in an advanced men's league, powering the ball past some of the top players in the country--college level and beyond. They're volleyball buddies.

Surely, playing against each other--for the first time no less--was bound to be tricky.

And then there's all this business about Capo Valley chickening out at last week's county championships. Capo Valley Coach Ken Goldstone said he didn't enter the tournament because, usually at this time of year, he still has a few players putting in time on the basketball court. So he arranged this tidy little nonleague match with Esperanza instead.

Lucky for the Cougars. Not so lucky for Esperanza, whose players wore cute little stick-on Cougar tattoos on their forearms, apparently thinking it would intimidate the opponent. Don't think it worked.

If anything, the Cougars turned out to be a more balanced team with better skills overall. Sure, Esperanza's resident annihilator, Nihipali, got in 29 court-shaking kills, but the Capo combination of Garcia, Seiffert and Alexander was too much for Esperanza. Especially Garcia, who, though only 6-feet-3 in high tops, blasted the ball as if it were a birthday-party pinata.

He also blasted his teammates, gently as he could, that is, when they suddenly found themselves trailing, 10-0, in the final game.

"I told them, 'C'mon, one play at a time! Creep back in. Steady, be steady.' " Garcia said. "So when we finally got to 15, 16, 17 (points), we didn't get upset. We knew we could side out forever."

Which is pretty much the way the game was heading until Seiffert and setter Eric McKelvie put Esperanza away with a game-winning block. If you're into endurance-type finishes, this was your kind of match. The Ironman Triathlon doesn't take this long.

The game ended with plenty of handshakes and high fives, but spirits on the Esperanza side were droopy, at best. Fact is, though, the teams might meet again this weekend at the Dos Pueblos tournament. Though Nihipali said even the prospect of a rematch wasn't too enticing.

"It wouldn't mean much to me," Nihipali said. " This match is what mattered."

Of course, you never know.

Capistrano Valley might not show up this weekend, either.

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