Weston Ranch's boys volleyball team was poised to back its historic season with another one.
The Cougars certainly appeared to be well on their way, claiming the Stockton Classic championship while rolling to a 10-0 record — by far their best start to a campaign.
They've qualified for the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs twice in the three years of the program's existence and shared the Valley Oak League championship with East Union in 2019.
“We could have won VOL again,” senior setter Mailo Bayot said. “Maybe even take it all the way to state.”
The statewide lockdown in response to the spreading COVID-19 pandemic put an end to that dream. The start of something special unexpectedly turned to a disappointing end for Bayot and the other three fourth-year varsity players — defensive specialist Seth Arriola, libero Jimmy Nguyen and opposite Andre Salazar.
Both Bayot and Nguyen were named to the All-VOL first team last season, while Salazar earned a spot on the second team. Expectations were high even with the graduation losses of middle blockers Armando Mendoza and Raul Melgarejo, the reigning VOL MVP and a second-team selection, respectively.
“We had it together this year,” Weston Ranch coach Debi Chavez said. She has led the team since its inception in 2017. “We have been pretty consistent the past three years, but this year they really clicked and worked well together.”
The Cougars have done well to be competitive. Boys volleyball was introduced to Manteca Unified schools in 2017 when Bayot and Co. were freshmen. Weston Ranch was the chief foil for Manteca High, a team anchored by players with experience at the club level and with winning — some were part of the school's section championship football team, others had claimed a state title in basketball that same year.
Coming into high school, Bayot and Nguyen did not think the sport would even be available to them.
“I was just going to run track,” Nguyen said. He and Bayot were middle school volleyball teammates at George Komure School. “We didn't hear (volleyball) was going to be (offered) until we got to the spring. We were excited to be able to play and grow together as a team.”
That Cougars team finished as runners-up to Manteca, going 13-7 overall. It was a senior-heavy group, led by VOL Most Oustanding Player Jarien Falcon. The one-year rebuild centered around Bayot, the team's only returning starter for 2018. He did not miss a match in his three-plus years.
“As a freshman I didn't expect to start,” Bayot said. “When coach started me I was very surprised, because I mainly played with upperclassmen. At first I was kind of scared.”
Bayot was among Chavez's main projects. A setter in her playing days, she took extra care in his development.
“The first couple of years I kept having to say, 'Mailo you have to do this,' or 'Mailo, you have to make that set,'” Chavez said. “Now, he's more of a student of the game.”
Then there's Nguyen, who, as a sophomore, was appointed to replace graduated All-VOL first-team selection Rence Santos at libero. Chavez admits she was sometimes harsh toward Nguyen.
“I'd say, 'You're not Rence,'” Chavez said, adding that Santos is one of the best liberos she has coached in 20 years. “I was so mean to him but he would just smile.”
Nguyen truly did not take offense to the criticism. It only served to make him stronger, and Chavez praised him for his vast improvement and willingness to learn. She even asked him to be captain, a request he respectfully declined.
“I thank Coach Chavez for everything she has done for me,” Nguyen said.
Following its down year, Weston Ranch came back with a vengeance in 2019 and went 7-1 in league and 13-4 overall. The only VOL defeat was a five-set thriller at East Union. It's a score both sides want to settle, even if it's not official.
“We were really looking forward to playing league this year — it probably would have been between us and East Union again,” Chavez said. “Our boys still want to play each other after all this (coronavirus) is done and they're adamant about it. Chelsea (Herrera, EU's coach) and I are totally fine with it.”
Weston Ranch also got its first-ever postseason win in 2019, vanquishing Stone Ridge Christian in five games. The Cougars then lost in four to West Campus, which only motivated them to get better.
In the offseason, Bayot worked closely with third-year junior Justin Nepomuceno, who has blossomed into the team's top front-row player. The emergence of other players, such as seniors Ramanjit Singh and Francisco Vega, allowed the Cougars to expand their arsenal.
“This team liked to try different thinks,” Bayot said. “We started trying special plays. We also had a lot of chemistry this year.”
Weston Ranch did have one shining moment in this shortened season. The Cougars won all four of their matches in the Stockton Classic and did so without Nepomuceno, who suffered a concussion before the title-round contest against Ceres. They won the best-of-three final in three sets.
“When (Nepomuceno) went down I was like, 'It's OK, at least we came this far,'” Chavez said. “Then we came back and won with someone who had never played middle before. It's a testament to the seniors on the team.”
She and the Cougars are likely back in rebuild mode losing so much experience this year, though help is on its way — Bayot has two younger brothers he is training, and one of them will be a freshman at the Ranch next year.
Bayot is attending the University of the Pacific and studying civil engineering. He's considering a tryout for a spot with Pacific's club team. Nguyen will go onto University of Washington and he has an internship lined up with Boeing. He'll study mechanical engineering.
“They're both really good kids and very smart, and it carried over into volleyball,” Chavez said. “They still text me and we'll share volleyball videos, things like that. I just wish they could have had their full senior season.”