After sweeping its way through the first two rounds of the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs, the Newport Harbor High boys' volleyball team ran into instant adversity in Saturday's quarterfinal showdown at Mission Hills Alemany.
The Sailors dropped the first set and fell behind midway through the second set. Then, they responded like a team that has spent the 2018 season making their case as the top team in the country.
Newport Harbor, which is ranked No. 1 in the nation by MaxPreps.com, stormed back to take the second, third and fourth sets to secure a 20-25, 25-22, 25-17, 25-9 victory.
The top-seeded Sailors (31-0) will host No. 4 South Torrance (36-1) in the semifinals on Wednesday at 6 p.m. South Torrance defeated Manhattan Beach Mira Costa 25-20, 21-25, 15-25, 25-20, 16-14 in the quarterfinals on Saturday.
"We just weren't feeling it to start off," said Dayne Chalmers, who led Newport Harbor with 22 kills. "We weren't playing our best volleyball. Then something clicked, and we started playing better in the second, third and fourth set."
The match opened on a surprising note, with Alemany rattling off a 4-0 run out of the gates and maintaining a lead throughout the remainder of the first set.
The Sailors struggled to string together runs early, although they did appear to gain momentum late in the set. After a 3-0 run, Newport Harbor closed the gap to 20-22. The Warriors were granted a point on a pre-serve infraction, however, and would proceed to score the next two points to win the set.
Ryan Horan led Alemany with 14 kills for the match, while Tanner Briggs recorded a team-high five blocks.
"I'm glad we put a fight up," Alemany coach David Decker said. "I think we came out and shocked them a little bit. They didn't know who we were. We knew who they were, so we came out ready for them."
The home crowd became energized with the first set won and the Warriors holding an 18-16 lead in the second. The energy turned to brash confidence, as "overrated" chants began to emerge.
As they would quickly learn, Newport Harbor was only waking up.
A block at the net by senior Ethan Talley sparked a 3-0 run for the Sailors, who would not trail in a set for the remainder of the night. Talley finished with seven kills and two solo blocks, while fellow senior Cole Pender recorded 12 kills, five service aces and four blocks in a tremendous all-around effort.
Pender also played a key role in putting the match out of reach, opening the fourth set with a kill on the first point followed by three consecutive aces — setting the stage for a 25-9 rout in the final set to secure the win.
"We're 31-0," Pender said. "If people want to say that's overrated, they can say whatever they want. We won't listen to anybody. We're just going to play as a team and stick on our side of the court."
While a sluggish start could serve as a warning sign for some teams, it could serve as a silver lining for the Sailors, who have comfortably handled their opponents for the better part of 2018.
Newport Harbor coach Rocky Ciarelli points to a back-and-forth second set as a turning point in the match. How his team responded from that point on spurs optimism for a group that dropped their first set of the playoffs on Saturday.
"I think it was good for us," Ciarelli said. "Sometimes you are going to struggle. These are 16-, 17-, 18 year-old kids. They're not always going to be perfect. It was good that they were able to come out of it. Even the second game, that was a big win. It kind of took the air out of their balloon and got us going."