We are family, the Royal High boys' volleyball players repeated like a mantra, after they defeated Highland to win the Southern Section Division II championship on Saturday.
"We're beyond best friends," Danny Rizzo said. "We love each other."
Syrupy sweetness spilled from the Highlander players in a makeshift pressroom after Royal's 15-10, 15-12, 11-15, 17-15 victory at Cerritos College.
"I was bawling my eyes out after the match," setter Josh White said. "We are a family."
But Royal's Matt Olsen, who seemingly had the most immediate cause for an emotional meltdown, sat silently behind a table, staring at the floor and fiddling with his championship patch while his teammates gushed.
Only six weeks ago, Olsen's mother, Lorraine, died of cancer. At the time, he had just recovered from torn ligaments in his left ankle, an injury that sidelined him for 10 weeks.
But the 6-foot-6 senior endured.
"It made me want to play harder," he said. "I just wanted to play for her. I dedicate it all to her."
Olsen has much to dedicate. Two days after signing to play for Brigham Young, he ended his high school career with a burst.
He pounded down 38 kills with no more than a handful of hitting errors.
"Was he awesome or what?" Royal Coach Bob Ferguson said. "He called on something extra."
This season, he called on the support of his teammates, who attended his mother's funeral.
"The team got really close then," he said. "They all supported me and my little brother Joe (a sophomore on the team) at the funeral."
Saturday, Olsen returned the favor, boosting the Highlanders (18-3) to their fourth section title in six seasons.
But it was not easy. Highland (18-1) had a magical season of its own. The Bulldogs surprised even themselves with their sudden success, and they played well Saturday.
Keyed by the play of middle hitters Ryan Millar (26 kills) and Mac Wilson (19 kills and 12 blocks), the Bulldogs led late in every game.
But Royal, though it had lost five starters from last year's team, continually rallied from behind. The Highlanders closed the first game with a 9-0 run, and took the second with steady play down the stretch.
Highland regrouped to win Game 3, and took a 13-9 lead in the fourth game. But the Bulldogs could not force a fifth game.
Three times the Bulldogs served on game point, but twice Olsen registered kills to give Royal a sideout, and Highland setter Toby Sides had the ball slip through his hands while attempting to set on the other game point.
"I think Royal was a little more experienced and had a little bit more ball control," Highland Coach Mike Bird said.
They also had Olsen. He served the final point of the match, and when Millar hit it off the net out of bounds, the season was over.
"The past couple of months I've been dedicating my life to volleyball," Olsen said. "Wanting to win this last game."