LA CAÑADA — When it gets deep into the boys’ volleyball playoffs, there are no more pretenders left.
For Flintridge Prep, the challenge in the quarterfinals was as real as it gets in the form of No.1-seeded Valley Christian.
The Rebels rode the momentum of a dramatic first-game win all the way through to a 29-25, 25-21, 25-16 sweep of the visiting Defenders on Saturday in a CIF Southern Section Division IV quarterfinal contest.
“That first game was a battle and I honestly think that because we pulled out that first game, it put a little doubt in [Valley Christian’s] mind and gave us [some] encouragement knowing we can can take out this team,” Rebel coach Sean Beattie said. “The next two games we were full steam ahead.”
After a two-year absence, Flintridge Prep (25-4) has advanced to the Division IV semifinals, to be played Wednesday at Windward, the No. 5 seed. Top-seeded Valley Christian (25-3) is now out, seeing its 15-match win streak also come to an end.
“I said it before, I think they underrated us when they told us we were the eighth seed and I think this kind of proves it,” Beattie said.
Flintridge Prep, the Prep League champion, was led by AJ Nicassio, who played up to the occasion. The senior had a match-high 19 kills while matching his offense with defense, recording 17 digs.
“AJ played out of his mind today from both the back and the front row,” Beattie said.
Fellow senior outside hitter Nathan Powell had 14 kills and senior Luke Stiles was next with 13 kills.
“We came in knowing we that could play well and we wanted to see how well the No. 1 seed could do,” Powell said. “I think we showed the tournament that we can still play too, even though we are the eighth seed.”
Rebel libero Kristopher Chang had 12 digs and three aces and freshman Jake Woo had 43 assists and three solo blocks.
Valley Christian, the Olympic League champion, came out strong in the first game, repeatedly blocking the Rebels at the net. But it would not last. The Defenders built their lead as high as six and still led by five, 19-14.
“That has been our entire year, persistence. We keep playing and have a lot of good pieces,” Nicassio said. “[We’ve] been in moments of pressure before and [we] know how to react. We were down by six at one point and that didn’t matter at all. We just kept fighting and I’m proud of everyone on the team.”
The lead was cut to one after a kill from the outside by Nicassio, making the score, 20-19. However, Valley Christian stayed in front and served for the game the first time at 24-22. But the ensuing point ended on a Defenders hitting error.
Woo then recorded a solo block in the middle to knot the score at 24. A kill from the backline by Defenders Camden Winter gave his squad another game-point, but Nicassio erased that with a kill from the outside.
Winter would end up leading his squad with 16 kills in the match.
The ensuing Flintridge Prep serve was short, giving the Defenders yet another chance to close the opening game out. However, Nicassio rose up again from the outside to tie the game at 26. Winter followed with a kill from the outside to set up another chance to finish, but once again Nicassio came up with a kill from the outside.
Rebels senior Torres Shi then got a kill in the middle to give Flintridge Prep its first chance to claim game one, 28-27. The Rebels did not let the opportunity pass, closing out the game on a kill from the outside by Powell.
Game two stayed close throughout, but Flintridge Prep stayed out front. Powell swung for a kill from the outside that went off the Defenders’ block to give the Rebels a 3-2 lead and the hosts never trailed again. The Rebels got their first game-point off an outside kill by Nicassio and two points later game two was theirs when a Valley Christian serve came up short.
“I talked to [my team] at the end of the second: ‘[The Defenders] are in their heads right now and we can’t let them let get out of their own heads. Keep pushing,’” Beattie said.
Flintridge Prep showed Valley Christian the door in game three, as the Rebels scored the first four points. The hosts’ lead peaked at 12 following consecutive kills by Shi, Stiles and Cole Barnard. The game and match came to a close when a Defenders serve sailed long, advancing the Rebels into the semifinals.
“We’ll celebrate the win, but [we have] the 24-hour rule,” Nicassio said. “We’re back on it tomorrow. We’ve got to get grinding and all that.”