Almost from the outset of their remarkable run, the Newport Harbor High boys' volleyball team had a collective belief that if it took care of its side of the net, nothing could get in the way of its path to glory.
Following a 25-22, 25-21, 25-19 victory over visiting No. 4-seeded South Torrance in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 semifinals on Wednesday night, No. 1 Newport Harbor is on the precipice of that prize.
For the first time since 2008, the Sailors (32-0) have advanced to the section final. Their opponent will be none other than Back Bay rival Corona del Mar (30-4), which swept Los Angeles Loyola 25-21, 25-23, 25-18.
The Back Bay rivals will meet in the top division final for the third time in their storied history. They split back-to-back meetings in the 1999 and 2000 seasons, with the Sea Kings claiming the most recent one.
Although rarely challenged on the scoreboard this season, the growth of this undefeated team has kept this campaign exciting. Now, Newport Harbor is exactly where it expected to be all along.
"It sounds great," Newport Harbor senior outside hitter Cole Pender said of reaching the championship match, which will be held Saturday at Cerritos College. "We earned it, so let's polish it off."
Both fan bases showed up in abundance, filling the Newport Harbor gym to the top row in its upper deck.
"This is the greatest gym to play volleyball in," Sailors coach Rocky Ciarelli said. "It's just so close, and everyone is right on top of the action. They had a good crowd. We had a good crowd."
With the crowd in full throat, an emotional match played out on the court. In the first set, Spartans senior setter Kohl Kutsch (28 assists, 2½ blocks, two service aces) wagged a finger at Pender after the Sailors' star was unable to save a volley on a diving third attempt.
Pender had the last laugh, recording one of his six first-set kills to give the Sailors set point. The Spartans (36-2) ran into the net on the next point to give Newport Harbor Game 1.
"Down by six, you should not be chirping at the other team," Pender said. "You got swept."
Ciarelli said he takes an old-school approach to trash talk, and he did not mind the back-and-forth verbal jousts between the teams.
"I'm old," he said. "When I played, everyone was yelling at each other, and they didn't care. They let us do it.
"It's just the way sports is these days. They don't want kids doing this, kids doing that. It doesn't bother me as much."
Junior outside hitter Jack Higgs and Pender each had a team-high 12 kills for the Sailors. Junior setter Joe Karlous added 37 assists and 1½ blocks, senior middle blocker Ethan Talley had nine kills and 2½ blocks, and junior outside hitter Dayne Chalmers chipped in with seven kills.
Senior outside hitter Connor Oliver had a match-high 13 kills for the Spartans, while senior outside hitter Patrick Faloona added seven kills and senior opposite Luke Krzmarzick had five kills. Senior middle blocker Noah Dougherty finished with four blocks.
Newport Harbor started out the third set with a 10-3 lead, briefly dampening the spirits of the South faithful. The Sailors knew that the Spartans had rallied to win in five sets in their quarterfinal match against Manhattan Beach Mira Costa, and they wanted to get into closing position.
"We knew that we had to take them early," Higgs said. "They're a team that fights back, so we had to start out strong."