Neil Buenaflor (27) of Burton spikes the ball against Washington in a game on May 1, 2019. (C.J. Peterson / Special to S.F. Examiner)

SF Preps Volleyball: Burton has gone from doormat to dominant

After more than a decade of struggling, Burton boys’ volleyball heads into postseason as top seed

Sitting behind his camera, Peter Chris Del Rosario was upset with his team after they dropping their second set of the afternoon.

Playing against an under-matched and under-manned George Washington team, Del Rosario, coach of the Burton boys’ volleyball team, was certain that his Pumas were capable of running the Eagles out of the gym.

“I know they’re better than this,” Del Rosario said. “They do this sometimes where they play down to their opponents level.”

Just two years ago, that sentence would have been unthinkable. Unable win more than three games in any single season since its inception in 2002, even being shuttered for four seasons, Burton has risen to the top of the Academic Athletic Association over the last two years. Under the guidance of Del Rosario and fellow alumni Roschelle Buenaflor, the Pumas are set to make their second straight AAA playoff appearance after finishing undefeated in league play.

“Our program is definitely growing and I think it has a lot to do with the consistency we have,” Del Rosario said. “We wanted to give our program a family aspect. We tried to bring the whole idea of brotherhood into our team.”

The transformation began in 2014, when Del Rosario joined the Pumas staff as a volunteer coach. Just one year before he arrived, the program was non-existent. The team was inactive from 2010 to 2013 due to lack of student interest.

“I just came up to to the school one day and I was like, ‘Hey, I’m an alum and I used to play volleyball and I know the program has a real need for a consistent coach,’” said Del Rosario, who graduated in 2007. “I was hoping to add some consistency and slowly but surely, I went from volunteer coach to assistant coach to now as one of the head coaches.”

Unlike many of the boys’ volleyball teams in the AAA, which have been around for several decades, the Burton’s boys volleyball program officially began in 2002, and faced a revolving door of coaches, which Del Rosario witnessed first-hand, playing under four head coaches in a three-year span.

Aiming to fix these issues, Del Rosario added another component to his staff in Buenaflor, who graduated from Burton in 2011 and joined Del Rosario as the team’s co-coach. During her time as a Puma, Roschelle played for the girls’ varsity team. While she had previously coached girls, leading boys was an entirely different task. What made things even more difficult was the fact that two of her younger brothers, Kyle and Neil, were members of the team.

“It’s interesting because I thought it would be hard to draw the line between big sister and coach,” she said. “There was definitely a struggle my first year.”

Those struggles quickly subsided, however, as the three learned how to differentiate between their time on the court and time together at home.

“With me and my sister, it’s all business,” Neil said. “She’s got a job to do and I’ve got a job to do and I think it just works out because we both understand each other’s position.”

For the Buenaflor family, volleyball is generational. Their father, Erwhien played on the varsity team for his high school back in the Philippines.

“He was my first coach so he taught me everything I know,” said Roschelle, who started playing volleyball at the age of seven.

It was this family dynamic that bled into the culture of the current Pumas team and helped transform them into the dynamic and dominant team they became in 2018, finishing the season with program-best 7-2 record. That success increased interest in the team, and enticed more students to join. The program expanded, adding a junior varsity team.

“Peter [Del Rosario] and I came in with a kind of open-heart, open-mind mentality,” Roschelle Buenalfor said.

Both Buenaflor and Del Rosario urged the boys to bond early, to connect with each other outside of the lines on the court and to become a cohesive unit.

With Kyle having graduated in 2018, Neil — who serves as the Pumas’ co-captain — is the lone remaining Buenaflor on the roster, but, Roschelle said, “I see all of them as my little brothers.”

From attending extra-curricular activities to enjoying meals together throughout the week, this time spent together has galvanized the team’s relationship.

“We did archery classes and we also did yoga,” said senior outside hitter William Huang. “We all died in yoga but it felt great after. It showed that we need more yoga. And we were all kind of bad at [archery], too. We should stick to volleyball.”

Neil Buenaflor says that all of these things have shown up on the court during games as Burton burst onto the scene last season and made its first AAA postseason appearance.

Falling victim to what Del Rosario saw as playoff nerves, as well as a handful of injuries to key players, Burton lost 3-sets-to-1 against Lowell in its first-ever postseason match.

“We pick each other back up,” he said. “If someone messes up, we’re there to help them right back up and we’re there for them.”

Answering Del Rosario’s pleas to sharpen up their play against Washington last week, the Pumas rallied from being down 2-sets-to-1 to close out the Eagles in the final two sets.

Smothering Washington 25-14 in the fourth set and 15-9 in the fifth, Burton finally utilized the skill set that Del Rosario has instilled in them over the last five five years. On Monday, they’ll get their second shot at the playoffs as the No. 1 seed, hosting Mission at 5 p.m.

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