NORWALK — Steve Conti is no stranger to leading the Corona del Mar High boys' volleyball team to the CIF Southern Section finals. He coached in his 12th on Saturday night.
Twelve section finals appearances in 21 years is a remarkable number. Many of those trips have come in consecutive years. While Conti has never won back-to-back section titles, his teams had never lost two in a row either.
Conti made history, not the kind he wanted, on the biggest stage. He guided the Sea Kings back to the Division 1 championship match at Cerritos College, and for the second time in as many years, CdM lost in five sets on the same court.
The Sea Kings have fallen short each time.
Second-seeded Los Angeles Loyola held on to defeat CdM, 25-14, 25-20, 17-25, 31-33, 15-12, downing the Sea Kings for the second time in two months.
The latest triumph gave Loyola (28-2) the ultimate prize, its first section title in six years. The Cubs have reached the finals before, coming up short three times in the previous four years.
The Sea Kings (27-6) almost came back and took down Loyola, forcing a decisive fifth set. Game No. 4 went back and forth, it was even 22 times, and it ran long. It seemed like the fourth set would never end, and then it did with UCLA-bound senior Sam Kobrine pounding six kills down the stretch in Game 4 to give CdM a dramatic 33-31 win.
The action was just as tight and intense in the final set. Seven times the score was even.
Kobrine, an outside hitter who finished with 28 kills, four assists, four digs, one solo block, one block assist and one service ace, broke two ties early in Game 5 with kills. His next two kills knotted the score at 11-11. Loyola called a timeout, and when it returned, it went ahead, 12-11, before Kobrine blocked a shot by JP Reilly, allowing CdM to catch the Cubs at 12-12.
The Sea Kings would never score again.
Reilly recorded his 18th and final kill to put Loyola ahead for good. The Sea Kings' next two shots were either long or stuffed. Ian Parish, a 6-foot-8 middle blocker, turned away Brandon Browning, clinching Loyola's 12th section crown in the program's history.
The Sea Kings looked on in disbelief, coming so close to winning their first Division 1 championship in 16 years.
"I'm just hurting for these boys right now," Conti said.
"[The Cubs] made a couple of plays toward the end of the match to win it."
Loyola seemed like it would run away with the championship, winning the first two sets.
The Cubs went into the evening having CdM's number, winning four of the past five matchups; their lone loss came in the semifinals a year ago. The Sea Kings swept the Cubs at Loyola in that one, and Loyola tried to return the favor.
The opening set featured four ties early on, and then the Cubs created a little separation. They went on a 5-1 run, as Reilly registered a service ace and hammered two kills out of the back row. Loyola led, 11-7, and it pulled away in Game 1 with strong serves — five went for aces — and a high hitting percentage.
The Cubs hit a staggering .500 as a team. The player who hurt CdM the most in the first set was Reilly, who produced six kills on nine attempts and added two digs.
Casey McGarry (33 assists) and Davis Boehle (22 assists), who fed Reilly in Game 1, began finding others like Jack Truman (15 kills) and Will Bantle (11 kills) in Game 2. The Cubs rallied to win the second set, scoring the last seven points for a 25-20 win.
The Sea Kings would respond. Harvard-bound setter Matt Ctvrtlik (54 assists and 10 digs) went to Kobrine, Browning (16 kills) and Mitch Haly (11 kills), and CdM prevailed in Games 3 and 4, setting up a Game 5 in the section final for the second straight year.
They had a legitimate chance to win this Game 5, unlike last year, when powerhouse Huntington Beach beat the Sea Kings en route to a three-peat. Loyola, which won in four sets at CdM on April 16, stood in the way of the Sea Kings again.