Each team's heavy hitter was hurt.
And a perfect path was cleared for Eric Bowen.
Bowen, a middle blocker for Taft High, pounded down a career-high 20 kills and Taft defeated Kennedy, 15-13, 15-11, 14-16, 15-10, in a Northwest Valley Conference boys' volleyball opener Tuesday at Kennedy.
Bowen provided an emotional lift for Taft (3-0), which took the first step toward a conference title.
The opportunity was there for Bowen with Taft opposite hitter Joe Nargi slowed by a sprained left ankle and Kennedy middle blocker Jeff Toon recovering from a pulled abdominal muscle.
Nargi had 27 kills and Toon had 21, but Bowen was the X-factor.
Bowen knows, and relishes, his role.
"Spark the team up," said Bowen, who played forward for the Taft basketball team and is scheduled to leave today for Colorado Springs to compete in the playoffs for a traveling roller-hockey team.
"I like to be that [emotional] person, to just step it up."
The Toreadors fell behind in the first game, 6-0 and 8-2.
But Bowen covered for a slow start by Nargi with four kills and a block during an 8-1 run that put Taft up, 10-9.
Taft remained in cruise control during a victory in the second game and sprinted to a 14-9 edge in the third game.
Then Kennedy (3-1) came back.
The Golden Cougars picked up four blocks in the closing stages, took a 15-14 lead and pulled to within a game when Nargi hit long on game point.
"It was like a joke within our team," Kennedy Coach Mike Stanton said.
"Why did we wait until the 14th point to play?"
Taft reestablished control in the fourth game with a 14-5 lead, faltered briefly when Kennedy pulled to within 14-10, but put the match away on a block by Brandon Brown.
Nargi, who had a home visit scheduled with Cal State Northridge a couple of hours after the match, finished strong, with nine fourth-game kills.
"[My ankle] started to give way in the end, but it was mental," said Nargi, who finished with a .179 hitting percentage.
"I just had to find it within me."
Toon finished with a .169 hitting percentage.
"I wish we would have started [playing better] earlier," said Toon, who has been in contact with Northridge, Pepperdine and USC. "We played our hearts out [in the end]."
The teams play again April 14 at Taft.