Placer preps for playoffs

Hillmen psyched for inaugural Sac-Joaquin Section tournament
By: Eric J. Gourley, Journal Sports STaff
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Ben Wolken didn’t fully grasp the significance of having the opportunity to play in the inaugural Sac-Joaquin Section boys volleyball playoffs until Placer High hosted its annual alumni game last week. “Talking to some of the alumni the other night, this is a huge thing because they didn’t have playoffs,” said Wolken, a senior captain at outside hitter. “It’s such a big deal to everybody that’s played in Auburn. We have a lot of expectations. The expectations are high, but I think we’re going to meet them and go further than we even expect.” The Hillmen open the section playoffs on the road against Sacramento High Thursday night. They tuned up by sweeping Rocklin in a Sierra Foothill League playoff match Tuesday 25-22, 25-22, 25-20. “They’re real excited to play in real playoffs for the first time ever,” head coach Robert McNutt said. “It’s something the young guys don’t really think about much, but for the older guys, all they’ve ever wanted is playoffs.” Seniors like 6-foot-7 captain Jeff Patton, who will play at Orange Coast College next year, were toddlers when Placer launched its first boys volleyball program in 1992. Patton never dreamed he’d have the chance to compete for a section pennant in his fourth and final year with the Hillmen. “When we first learned we’d have playoffs this year, I knew our team had a chance if we played up to our potential,” said Patton, who had 11 kills and two blocks in the Rocklin sweep. “Now that we made it, it’s pretty exhilarating.” The Hillmen (19-11) enter the postseason tournament as the third seed in the competitive SFL South after a 4-4 league finish. “We’re going out there and playing the best we can,” Patton said. “We’re not a team that has the tallest guys. We’re not a team that has the highest jumpers, but we have a lot of heart and a will to win that some teams might not have. We make up for it with defense and scrappiness, and that’s been working out well for us so we’re looking forward to continuing that.” McNutt describes his squad as “blue collar.” “We’re small, but we’ve gotten better all year,” he said. “We’re not one of the flashier teams, but we’ve got some tough guys out there who will go for any ball.” Junior captain Conner McKenzie, who had 17 digs and eight kills Tuesday, is a defensive end on the gridiron and brings great speed to the volleyball court. Junior opposite hitter Brenden Lewis, another strong server, had 10 kills and eight digs. Wolken had 11 digs and six kills in the section tuneup. “We’ve just been having league and whoever has the best record wins, but now anybody can win,” he said. “We’ve never been the team with the best record. Now we have a chance to be the underdog and take it all. That’s exciting.” McNutt isn’t concerned about how Placer is perceived in the postseason. “We’re going to win,” he said. “We treat every team with respect. Whether they’re good or bad we play the same way. We just worry about what we’re doing. That’s how we always play. We never downsize. That’s what got us here. We’re going to have fun and go play some ball.”