NORWALK — It has to be gratifying for a team to start and end its season at No. 1.
Such was the case for the Huntington Beach High boys' volleyball team, a team that has dominated the opposition over the course of the season. That domination continued Saturday before a full house at Cerritos College in Norwalk. The top-ranked Oilers captured the CIF Southern Section Division 1 championship by defeating third-seeded Los Angeles Loyola, 25-17, 20-25, 25-17, 25-10.
Huntington kept two streaks alive in the process: the Oilers ran their win streak to 61 matches dating to last year, and won their second-straight Southern Section title. It is the first repeat for the program since it first accomplished the feat under then-coach Rocky Ciarelli in 1993-94.
The program's current title win streak has come under the direction of Coach Craig Pazanti.
"We were preseason No. 1, had a target on our back and we even had a target on us when we weren't No. 1," Pazanti said as he held onto the CIF championship plaque after the match. "Yes, it's definitely satisfying and relieving, to come out of here with this win and the title."
Two familiar foes squared off Saturday for the D-1 title. A year ago, Huntington twice rallied from a set down to take a five-set thriller from Loyola at Santiago Canyon College in Orange. A week after that division final, the Oilers again knocked off the Cubs in five sets to win their first CIF Southern California Regional Division 1.
Last year, Huntington was the No. 4-seed heading into CIF play. This year, all other teams were chasing the Oilers who went wire-to-wire as the division's top-ranked team.
They won 34 of 36 games last year. Now, they take a 37-0 record going into next week's Southern California Regional Division 1 tournament.
"I thought we played well but we couldn't have played any worse than we did in that second set," Pazanti said. "But I looked up [at the scoreboard] and we were down only 22-20. We responded well, though, in sets three and four."
Huntington, which swept each of its previous four playoff opponents, had taken the first set Saturday fairly handily, 25-17, to move a step closer to securing the program's fourth Southern Section championship in boys' volleyball. Then, the Oilers hit a snag.
Loyola went on an early, 5-0 run to break a tie score in the second set to grab an 8-3 lead. Huntington could get no closer than two points the rest of the set and went on to drop a 25-20 score. The loss marked only the sixth time this year that the Oilers had dropped a set in 37 matches, Pazanti said.
It turned out to only be a minor setback for the Oilers who never trailed the remainder of the match.
Huntington pulled away from a 7-7 tie in the third set to win going away, 25-17, to take a 2-1 lead in the match. They were in cruise control in the fourth set, using a 7-0 run to take an eight-point lead (11-3) from which the Cubs could not recover. During the spurt, senior middle blocker Drake Evans had a solo block and twice teamed with junior setter Josh Tuaniga for blocks at the net.
The Oilers grabbed their first double-digit lead of the set when junior outside hitter TJ DeFalco landed a big kill in the back court for a 17-7 lead. It was 19-10 when the Oilers reeled off the final six points of the set. Another kill by DeFalco, a stuff at the net by senior middle blocker Ryan Morrissey and an ace by junior libero Blake Diamond put the Oilers at match point which they got on a kill down the middle by senior outside hitter Brenden Sander.
DeFalco finished with a match-best 21 kills. Evans had 11 kills, eight digs, two solo blocks and two block assists, Sander had eight kills and seven digs, and Tuaniga recorded 48 assists with five digs.
Tuaniga ignited the Huntington bench and fans with a great play in the third set, with the match tied at 1-1. He chased down a shot at the Huntington end line and with his back to the net, sent a long, desperate shot that had just enough steam to get to the net, trickle over the top and then drop safely on the Loyola side of the court. The play drew a huge roar from the Huntington side and it put the Oilers up, 13-8.
"It's crazy," Evans said of Huntington's repeat title. "When we won it last year, I could hardly contain myself. But this year, it feels even better to win CIF."
DeFalco had an outstanding performance in the Division 1 final for a second-straight year. He had 26 kills in last year's title game.
"TJ seems to save his 'A' game for the big game," Pazanti said.
DeFalco said Saturday's match was what he and his teammates had worked hard toward all season.
"We started off at the beginning of the year at practice, training for this moment," he said. "It's unbelievable."
Huntington figures to land the top seed for the CIF Southern California Regional tournament which starts Tuesday. Tournament pairings will be released Sunday.
The Oilers won last year's regional title, defeating Loyola in the Division 1 final.
Mission League champion Loyola, which fell to 24-4, also figures to be included in the regional tournament. The Cubs knocked off second-seeded Corona del Mar in Wednesday's semifinals to reach the final.
The Huntington-Loyola match was the last of five division finals played Saturday at Cerritos College. Other teams winning division championships were Saddleback Valley Christian (Division 5), Cathedral (Division 4), South Pasadena (Division 2), and Esperanza repeated in Division 2.