Christopher High boys volleyball coach Kevin Bruce hopes the team learned a valuable lesson in a five-set win over San Benito High on April 5. Up two games to none and seemingly cruising to victory, the Cougars instead received a scare in what would’ve easily been their worst loss of the season.
Game scores were 25-16, 25-18, 23-25, 20-25, 15-12.
“That’s our usual. We like to make things more difficult than it has to be,” Bruce said. “It’s the story of the season. But we always fight through it and so far we’ve been coming out on top.”
This one was different in that it was the first time the Cougars have been taken to a decisive fifth set in Pacific Coast League Gabilan Division play this season. They’ve been so dominant through their first seven league matches that five came by sweeps.
However, a pumped up and tough San Benito squad gave Christopher all it could handle. The Haybalers were animated and weren’t afraid to show it, and both sides engaged in a fair amount of trash talking and finger pointing in what was a highly entertaining match.
In the end, though, the Cougars did what they were supposed to do—win. With Stanford-signee Ryan DuRoss and Hawaii-commit Kai Rodriguez—who didn’t play due to injury—Christopher averted a minor disaster by winning Game 5. It didn’t come easy, as on two occasions during the match the players left the court during a stoppage in play to talk things over.
Ultimately, the Cougars took care of business after Game 5 was all level through the first 10 points at 5-5. Kills by DuRoss and Will Anderson put Christopher up for good.
“No excuses, that’s what we do, we take our foot off the gas pedal and a team like Hollister is all emotion so once they get going, it’s really hard to stop them,” Bruce said. “They’ve got nothing to lose. I think they’re the third seed in league right now and they have to knock somebody off if they want to move up.”
Two days after the San Benito match, CHS played without DuRoss and still won in five, receiving huge performances from Anderson (15 kills) and Christian Kjellesvig (13 kills).
There’s plenty of reasons why Christopher is the premier team in the PCAL and a threat to reach the Central Coast Section semifinals or perhaps even the title match. The Cougars are ranked No. 5 in the section by MaxPreps, behind St. Francis, Mountain View, Bellarmine and Cupertino.
They lost to Bellarmine two games to none in a tournament where matches are best-of-three contests, but the second set was close. And they own several quality wins, including ones over Santa Cruz, Bullard of Fresno and Leland. One thing is for certain: with DuRoss and Rodriguez’s immense talent level, CHS is on its way to winning a league title with the potential to make a deep postseason run.
The Cougars are a perennial playoff participant, having missed just one CCS tournament in the last decade. Their deepest runs came in 2019 and 2021, both quarterfinal appearances.
“I’ve been here seven, eight years, and this is probably the best team we’ve had,” Bruce said. “Two D1 players kind of put you over the top.”
DuRoss and Rodriguez are dynamic talents who are often unstoppable, even against the best teams. With Rodriguez out in the San Benito match, DuRoss got the lion’s share of the sets and he delivered a career-high 42 kills, an astronomical number even in a five-set contest.
Time and again DuRoss terminated the ball with authority, smashing the ball off the opposing players’ faces at times and even in one instance nailing the ball off a player’s back, sending the ball a good five yards before it landed on the floor well out of San Benito’s reach.
“I’ve coached him here for four years, but there are moments where I’m just like, ‘Wow, even with all the stuff I’ve seen from him, that’s something I haven’t seen in a while,’” Bruce said.
Four-year varsity player and three-year starter Zack Zollinger had another strong match and finished with 56 assists, eight digs and three blocks.
“Zack has really figured out how to place the ball where guys want it and he’s running our system pretty well,” Bruce said.
CHS also received excellent play from middle Christian Kjellesvig, who is coming off a tremendous season on the basketball team. Zollinger and Kjellesvig connected on some quick set attacks which are always tough to stop, even for the best teams.
Libero Marli Cabana had 10 digs and passed well. CHS will go as far as its passing takes it because if it can stay in system, few teams can stop DuRoss and Rodriguez. And if the Cougars have their attacks through the middle in sync, they’ll really be formidable.
“The libero is the key for our offense because serve-receive is always Ryan, Kai and one other person, so it’s always our libero, and he makes it so there’s nobody you can pick on so there’s no real weak spot,” Bruce said. “A lot of teams will target our libero, but he’s able to pass well enough that it still keeps us in system and our offense still goes.”
Although DuRoss and Rodriguez are the team’s go-to players, the difference with this year’s CHS team is it has a superior supporting cast. All of the aforementioned players and others like Damiann Gomez and Jayden Lee will prove key in the Cougars’ playoff run. Gomez unleashed some nice attacks against San Benito, and Lee had three blocks.
“We’ve got a lot of other players stepping up and contributing, and we’ll need that to continue,” Bruce said.
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]