Buchanan High's latest conquest in boys volleyball -- a 3-0 sweep of Dana Hills-Dana Point in a Southern California Regional Division I opener Tuesday night -- has earned the Bears a home-court, national-class showcase tonight.
"I think we're peaking at the right moment," said Lake Merchen, the Central Section's premier player, after powering second-seeded Buchanan to the 25-16, 25-23, 25-16 elimination of the No. 7 Dolphins in 1 hour and 15 minutes before a large crowd in the Bears' west gym.
Dana Hills hails from the Southern Section, the undisputed hotbed of prep volleyball nationally.
And it is from there that Loyola-Los Angeles will march onto Buchanan's campus for a 6 p.m. semifinal today.
The 25-4 and third-seeded Cubs, who defeated Carson-Los Angeles 3-1 Tuesday, are ranked second nationally by Student Sports.
Buchanan (36-4) is No. 7 nationally, and the Bears have split with Loyola in a season in which they've played 22 of their matches out of the section against elite competition from California, Nevada and Hawaii.
Buchanan lost 3-0 at Loyola to open the season March 13 but rebounded with a 2-0 win over the Cubs two days later in a Best of the West Tournament semifinal in San Diego.
"The first time, we played them scared," said Patrick Gasman, the Bears' 6-10 junior middle blocker and the biggest of a big team. "The second time, we played on our level."
Dana Hills coach Oz Simmons left the Buchanan gym appreciating that level from a Bears team that hammered away up front with Gasman (10 kills, five blocks) and 6-4 Wesley Arnold (six kills) in the middle and the 6-4 Merchen (nine kills, six digs) and 6-5 Ryan Smith (11 kills, nine digs) on the outside; followed the lead of setter David Wiechmann (35 assists); and once again received superb back row play of libero Aaron Samarin (20 digs).
Merchen and Samarin are about to be scholarship players at UC Santa Cruz and Ohio State, and juniors Gasman, Smith and 6-8 Donovan Mitchell are being recruited heavily.
"They're just a solid team all the way around," Simmons said. "Sometimes, with big teams, they don't have ball control. But they have ball control, pass well, have a good balance of solid hitters and play really good defense."
For all that, plus rich recent history -- having won the SoCal Regional and finishing No. 2 nationally at 39-3 in 2011; having finished No. 16 nationally and 37-6 in 2012; and now this -- Merchen still isn't convinced the Bears are viewed with general reverence in Southern California.
"I still think some of those teams kind of laugh at us when we walk in a gym," he said, "but I think we're working our way up there and getting the respect we deserve."
Another Southern Section team could be up next for Buchanan, should it beat Loyola, and that's 37-0 Huntington Beach, which is top-ranked nationally and beat the Bears 2-0 in the Best of the West.
The SoCal Regional final will be played at Cerritos College at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
The Buchanan-Loyola match was moved up a day due to a conflict with Buchanan's graduation ceremony Thursday night.
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