Brian Ronan knew the Serra boys’ volleyball team had a chance to do something special this season.
Just three years ago, when Ronan was a varsity freshman, the thought of his someday realizing a storybook championship might have seemed crazy. During that 2016 season, Serra scuffled through a 5-21 overall season, including a winless 0-10 mark in West Catholic Athletic League play.
Oh, how times have changed. The past two years, the Padres have emerged as a Central Coast Section powerhouse. And this year they proved it, making program history by marching to a CCS Division II title, the first in Padres volleyball history, to affirm its legacy with a championship banner to be displayed among the rows upon rows of them in Morton Family Gymnasium that tell the story of Serra’s esteemed athletics history.
“It means a ton to everyone on the team and all the alumni the past two years that have worked with the school as well,” Ronan said. “These past two years we knew were the best chance for us to really win a championship.”
To call Ronan a prototypical powerhouse outside hitter is somewhat misleading. Sure, he emerged as a first-team all-WCAL attacker this year, and proved a workhorse as a six-rotation player. But his distinguishing trait is that the senior is left-handed, more akin to playing the right side as an opposite hitter — which he did his first two varsity seasons — instead of excelling as an unorthodox left-side pin hitter.
Excel is precisely what he did though, which is why he has been named the Daily Journal Boys’ Volleyball Player of the Year. While surpassing 1,000 career kills this season — he totaled 1,119 kills through four years — he set a Serra single-season program record with 483 kills, while also leading the Padres with 47 aces. He also balanced his game with 241 digs.
Ronan’s performance fronted a 32-9 overall record, including a second-place finish in the WCAL with a 10-2 mark. The Padres not only swept Valley Christian through three matches this year, including a 25-17, 25-20, 25-10 victory in the CCS Division II championship match, they also advanced to the CIF Division II Northern California championship match.
“The seniors on the team this year, a lot of us had been on the team since freshman year,” Ronan said, “and we were not good at all. But … every year there was a few more pieces added … and this year was the first year we didn’t have an underclassman starting.”
Somewhere during the course of his junior year, Ronan recognized Serra had a two-year window to do something special. Last years mix of key seniors, including star outside hitter/setter Zachary Smith, surrounded Ronan with a steady group of leaders.
“Yeah, we knew it was going to be a big challenge, not just losing Zach Smith but (also) Trent Miller and Michael Gonzales as starters,” Ronan said. “And so I knew my role would have to expand this year.”
The Padres fell short of CCS glory in 2018 though, falling in the Division II semifinals.
This year, a new head coach in former assistant Heather Anthony placed an emphasis on scrimmaging in practice, and the new-look Padres locked in from the outset, winning 13 of their first 14 matches.
“I think it was a very effective approach,” Ronan said. “Throughout the season, we had less and less mistakes that were technical, or not knowing what to do in a certain scenarios. In the end, all the kids were playing pretty free and we knew where we were at all times, not only in the games, but also in practice.”
Not that Serra’s roster featured a new cast of characters. Senior setter Neeraj Keshav and junior outside hitter Nick Disco were both longtime starters, and were integral to the team’s success. The return of senior middle Cade Rees — who missed 2018 due to injury — was a momentous addition.
Rees, who also plays basketball at Serra, is accustomed to big crowds from the hoops season. The Serra volleyball team, however, wasn’t — at least not until the Nor Cal tournament during which the Padres as the No. 2 seed hosted their first two matches, a three-set sweep of Marin Catholic-Kentfield and a four-set victory over Nevada Union-Grass Valley.
The showing for the Nevada Union match was on par with a basketball crown. Ronan rewarded the electric crowd with a 20-kill effort, matching his season-high from the CCS championship match.
“It was just a really good feeling playing in front of a lot of classmates,” Ronan said.
Taking to the road for the Northern California Division II championship match at Clovis East was something of a scheduling debacle. The Padres received word two days prior to the Saturday showdown that the start time needed be moved up from 6 p.m. to 2 p.m. The problem with that for the Padres, in addition to the travel, was it was the day after Serra’s prom.
The Padres fell to the No. 1 seed 25-23, 20-25, 25-23, 25-19. Still, Ronan relished the close of his organized volleyball career, as he will be attending University of Alabama to focus on academics.
“It’s definitely given me a lot of lifelong friends and lifelong memories, even just off the court, on the bus or whatever, joking around with my friends,” Ronan said. “And playing on the court for four years was just really special. The way it turned out, it was like a storybook. … It couldn’t really have ended any better.”