The crowd inside the the Sylmar High School gymnasium was two-thirds Spartans fans, one-third Eagle Rock fans. There was cheering, groaning, pleading, wishing and hoping for the two-plus hours the Spartans and Eagles battled vigorously on Tuesday, May 17, for the right to play in the Los Angeles City Section boys’ volleyball Division II final this weekend.
In the end, Eagle Rock stood just a little taller, played a little stronger, and was able to outlast Sylmar in five sets — 17-25, 26-24-23-25, 25-12, 15-10 — and oust the Spartans from the playoffs.
Just like they did last year in the semifinals.
It was a bittersweet ending for the Sylmar seniors, many of whom had never played the game until learning in high school. Players like setter Adrian Gomez, outside hitters Morgan Wadlow and Anthony Zelaya, and middle blockers Austin Moore and Andrew Zamora started from scratch as freshmen and developed into a terrific core. A senior class that had never won fewer than 20 games in a season and three Valley Mission League titles in their four years.
But a championship would remain tantalizingly out of reach — just as it did on Tuesday.
“For me, it’s heartbreaking,” said Spartans Coach Soheil Mashed. “As one of them said afterward, ‘there’s no regrets.; we left it all out on the floor.’ We just didn’t come through like we needed to.”
The match on Tuesday meant more to Sylmar than just a trip to the final. The campus had been rocked by several fights last week in the aftermath of a confrontation at an afterparty following the senior prom. Although there have been no further outbreaks, the image of the school took another hit.
Mashhoud quietly bristled at the notion the team could have been forced to move its home game to a neutral site, or forfeit the match because of any potential lingering concerns over campus safety.
“There were signs that our game might get moved last Tuesday (a 3-0 first round win over Canoga Park),” Mashhoud said. “We said no, we’re on a safe campus. My kids knew what our goal has been — to get to the championship game.
“We’re very diverse out here. I have all kinds of diversity on my team, and we work together. We’ve never had that kind of problem here at all.”
The Spartans last reached a City volleyball championship game in 2009, losing to Granada Hills in four sets. That’s when area legend Tyler Honeycutt — who played college basketball at UCLA and professionally in the NBA and Europe — was rising above the net to power killshots past helpless blockers.
Sylmar currently doesn’t have a starter to the height of the 6-8 Honeycutt, although Wardlow and Zamora measure 6-3 and 6-2, respectively. Eagle Rock had appeared to have several players that made the Spartans look short. “They’ve got some club players, too,” muttered one Sylmar supporter on the way out. That may be one reason the Eagles are in position to win their third City title in the last four years.
Sylmar had its chances. The Spartans won the first and third sets, forcing the Eagles to have to win the last two. Unfortunately for Sylmar, Eagle Rock did just that by practically dominating both games.
Did Sylmar perhaps have a letdown after Game Three, figuring there was no way Eagle Rock would win two straight?
Mashhoud gives the inquiry an honest consideration.
“I think we got a little complacent,” he said. “It showed in our offense (in Game Four). We started (Games Four and Five) really slow….ultimately, though, they passed better than we did. They received serve just a little better than we did. They aced us a few more times than we expected, which was not our game plan at all.”
The group of seniors may not have gotten a championship — which would have been the first boys’ volleyball title in Sylmar’s history. But they will be remembered in Spartan lore, Mashhoud said.
“This is the group that was the most tight-knit as a team, friends, on and off the court. It’s been fun and exciting.”
Even on the heartbreaking nights, like Tuesday.