MOUNTAIN VIEW — The Mt. Madonna Hawks didn’t make many errors — heck, you could probably count them using your fingers and toes — but when playing against the two-time defending Central Coast Section Division II champion Saratoga High and Joel Schneidmiller, one of the best players in the section…err, nation, there’s not much room for error.
Scratch that. There’s no room for error.
The No. 7-seeded Hawks continued their red-hot postseason play but couldn’t knock off the No. 6-seeded Falcons in the CCS D-II semifinals, falling 25-21, 25-19, 22-25, 25-15 on Saturday at St. Francis High in Mountain View.
Saratoga (22-10), which also won the California Interscholastic Federation NorCal Division II Championship last season with 6-foot-6 Schneidmiller leading the way, was surgical from start to finish. When it wasn’t Schneidmiller, who led the nation in kills and kill percentage in 2016, raining down powerful strikes that threatened to break the hardwood, it was senior middle blocker Harry Fong coming up with fireball kills of his own or freshman setter Mohan Duvvuri poking over an opportunistic kill from time to time. Juniors Jason Tran and Joshua Song also chimed in from the back row and the outside as well as on defense.
“They’re in system. They’re kind of like a robot,” said Mt. Madonna junior outside hitter Brigg Busenhart, who finished with a team-high 20 kills and five blocks — three of which came against Schneidmiller. “They shift perfectly into their places. It’s hard to play against that.”
Yet Busenhart and Co. were able to have success against the Falcons in spurts. The Hawks (19-13) held leads in the second and third sets but were unable to hold on to their advantage in the former. Schneidmiller thrice sent the ball into the floor to put the Falcons up by five midway through the second set and his teammates did the rest, working their way to a nine-point lead and putting the Hawks on the brink of elimination.
Mt. Madonna played its best volleyball of the night in the third. The lead switched hands eight times before the Hawks ensured that there would be no sweep by scoring the final three points. Junior middle blocker Jordan Willis made two massive blocks and Busenhart sent the ball off a pair of Falcons and out of bounds to force a fourth set.
But Saratoga, which will play for its third straight CCS title on Tuesday against top-seeded Pacific Collegiate School — a four-set winner over No. 4 Carmel High — back at St. Francis, proved to be too much for the Hawks in the end.
“We had to be pretty perfect on our side-out game and we struggled with passing here and there,” said Mt. Madonna head coach P.K. McDonald. “Schneidmiller was pretty unstoppable but I don’t feel like he took us out of our game. We stuck with it. Good times and bad, they really kept their composure. I’m really proud of them because we’ve had such an up-and-down season but for these last three games the kids have really brought their best volleyball.”
Mt. Madonna finished in third place in the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League regular season and tournament but seemingly flipped the playoff switch on Tuesday. The Hawks beat No. 10 Sacred Heart Cathedral in the first round and stunned No. 2 Branham High in Thursday’s quarterfinal round to earn a spot in the final four.
Busenhart said the Hawks’ six-game weekend in late April at the Bellarmine Invitational, where they played powerhouse teams like Serra, Roseville, Archbishop Mitty, and Arroyo Grande, served as their wake-up call after a respectable but disappointing league season.
“We got beat up by some good teams at Bellarmine,” Busenhart said. “I think we just brought the fire after that because we knew we had to bring it.”
Sophomore libero John Dias and senior opposite Nate Vince finished with 10 digs apiece and had the tough task of trying to slow down Schneidmiller, who played for the U.S. U19 national team last year. Several times the Hawks’ backline defenders were in perfect position to dig his hits but were left flatfooted swinging at air.
On the other end, Busenhart had numerous strikes that thumped off a Falcons' defender and flew high out of bounds into the second story of the St. Francis High gym drawing “oohs” from the crowd.
Both Schneidmiller and Busenhart said they’re good friends off the court and that there’s no rivalry on it despite the former knocking the latter out of the playoffs three years in a row.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a rivalry. We just happen to play them the last three years and it’s too bad we had to beat them every time,” Schneidmiller said. “It’s just business.”
Mt. Madonna will only graduate Vince from its roster of 10. The rest will all be back, including Busenhart, Dias and Willis.
McDonald said the future definitely looks bright, especially when considering that several starters had were playing in new positions this season like sophomore outside Luca Peruzzi and junior setter Zac Wagner.
“It’s going to be hard to replace Nate but when you have such a great and talented junior group, we have to put it all together next year and get back to the final,” McDonald said.