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San Dieguito volleyball boys ends great season in state semifinals

When coach Raymond Wilson led the San Dieguito Academy boys volleyball team to a San Diego Section Division IV title in 2014, he was handed the trophy but told immediately that the Mustangs wouldn’t be advancing to the SoCal Regionals.

On May 20, when SDA captured the 2016 D-III title, one of his players was handed a ball to give to Wilson, with the instructions that it was to be used for state playoffs.

“It was pretty cool,” said Wilson, in his fifth year as varsity coach. “In years past, Francis Parker has always represented San Diego in Division III. But this year, we ended up getting the spot, which was amazing. We did not expect that.”

That’s not to say, however, that the Mustangs didn’t enter 2016 with high expectations. Though SDA was bounced in last year’s quarterfinals by the eventual San Diego D-III champions, Wilson and his players felt like they were the second-best team in the tournament. And with five starters returning this season, including the Sippel triplets — 6-foot-6 Cameron, 6-5 Grant and 6-5 Zac — SDA had its sights firmly set on a section title.

After testing themselves against a tough nonconference schedule, then going 9-1 to dominate the Valley League, SDA (21-13) accomplished its goal of a SDS championship by rolling through the playoffs without dropping a game in any of its three matches.

With those wins — over Escondido Adventist Academy, Mira Mesa and top-seeded Castle Park for the crown — the Mustangs did enough to earn the state playoff berth. Far from being just happy to be there, sixth-seeded SDA shrugged off a three-hour bus ride and No. 3 Damien (Los Angeles) High’s tough home-court advantage to win its first SoCal Regional match, 25-21, 25-23, 25-14, on May 24.

That set up a regional semifinal on May 26 at Jordan High, also in L.A. Despite another 2.5-hour bus ride, and a small gym housing a raucous home crowd, the locals jumped out to a 2-0 lead on the strength of 25-16 and 25-21 set wins.

The hosts, however, bounced back and captured the final three games, ending the Mustangs’ season one match short of the SoCal finals, which would have been streamed live by Time Warner. Down 14-13 after winning the serve back in the final game, SDA was on the wrong end of a 50-50 ball that just barely landed on its side to end the match. But rather than dwelling on what could have been, the Mustangs are happy with how far the program has come.

“I think those two state playoff games were the best we’ve ever played,” Wilson said. “My first year, I think we had only three or four wins. And now, a few years later, we have two CIF titles, a semifinal finish in state and our school had never had a CIF title or been to state (in any sport) since it’s been San Dieguito Academy (1994).

“There’s this feeling that the program is building this winning tradition.”

With just 10 players on the regular-season roster, Wilson said all 10 made significant contributions to the team’s success in 2016.

The roster was even smaller initially as 6-3 junior Monty Gracey, a slick passing outside hitter who was named MVP of the CIF section championship game, wasn’t even eligible for the first 30 days of the season. During that time, 6-1 Kieran Zimmer stepped up big. Wilson said the sophomore’s best skill is bringing energy, whether on or off the court, which is especially important in a sport like volleyball, with all of its emotional swings.

Senior Jake Roberts earned first-team all-league honors as well as praise from his coach for his work as the SDA setter.

“Jake is extremely athletic,” Wilson said. “Setter is a really tough position and he really held the team together, making some amazing sets out of not the greatest (passes).”

When it comes to big hitters, Grant and Cameron Sippel fit the bill and then some, as Grant led the team in what Wilson called “wow plays” and Cameron, a lefty, was “undiggable when he’s on.” Zac Sippel and Gunnar Grah held down the outside, improving as the season went along.

Middle John Giovannoni, a 6-5 sophomore, was the Mustangs’ best blocker, while defense in the back was provided by Josh Lin and sophomore libero Nate Janis.

But as good as his guys are as players, Wilson says they are even better people:

“It’s a good set of boys, I know they are all going to be successful (in life). My assistant coach Brady Dinnsen and I were talking and, especially with our senior class this year, we’ve never seen such well-behaved kids. The (triplets), if you walk around our campus, they are known just for being the nicest guys. And I think they’ve kind of made our volleyball team like that. That’s the reputation our team has built up in the community, which I’m almost more proud of than anything else.”


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