LATHROP — With the opening game tied 10 times by 13-13 in the first set, No. 10 Merced and seventh-seeded Lathrop were locked in a bitter battle in opening-round action of the Division II Sac-Joaquin Section boys volleyball playoffs.
Enter Gabriel Gutierrez for the host Spartans.
With just one kill up to that 13-13 tie, Gutierrez hammered out three in a row and seven for the set as Lathrop exploded on a 10-2 run on the way to a 25-18, 25-20, 25-18 sweep of the Bears.
Gutierrez led his team with 17 kills and 15 digs.
“We have been battling all year through injuries, hardships, struggles,” Gutierrez said. “We have had ups and downs throughout our season.
“To put the whole team’s skill out there in a big playoff game like this is fun to watch. And, of course, I have to give a big shout-out to my setter (R.J. Carmesis), because I wouldn’t be anywhere without him.”
The second and third sets started much the same way as the first, with multiple ties before the Spartans (27-2) pulled away. The last lead for Merced (18-10) was at 7-6 in the second set and 3-2 in the third.
Tyler Riggleman helped balance the Lathrop attack with 14 kills and 13 digs.
“Tonight was amazing,” Riggleman said. “We have kind of been in a rut. We had plateaued and this was the step we needed to take to get to the next level.
“We realized that this is it and that this is what we had worked for all season.”
Carmesis was busy setting up Gutierrez and Riggleman, dishing out 41 assists.
“They made some really good passes to me,” Carmesis said. “We have been practicing all year for this.
“We were challenged and we overcame that.”
Adrian Corona added seven kills for the Spartans.
Lathrop made it to the playoffs in 2018 but were swept on the road by Golden Valley of Merced in the first round.
“This is making history for our school,” Spartans coach Heather Anderson said. “We have done a lot of that this season. Last year we were just excited to be here and this year we wanted to show that we deserved to be here.
“We got swept in the first round last year and we had a lot of returners who experienced that and really wanted to turn it around and prove that our league record showed we were a good team, and not just because we were in a different league this year.”
Lathrop will travel to Folsom on Thursday to face fourth-seeded Vista del Lago at 7 p.m.