Times Staff Writer

Boys' volleyball fans, mark March 21 on your calendar.

That's when Los Angeles Loyola High, ranked No. 1 by The Times, plays at No. 2-ranked Manhattan Beach Mira Costa in a showdown that could set the tone for the remainder of the season.

"This game is always a thrill," Loyola Coach Michael Boehle said. "These will be two of the top teams in the country. It's a good show in front of a lot of people. It's good for volleyball."

Some say it will be a preview of the Southern Section Division I final.

Rule changes allow both teams to compete in Division I this season. A year ago, Mira Costa won the Division II title and Loyola was ousted in the Division I semifinals.

What else makes this year's match so special? Talent and tradition.

Loyola has five players who gained seasoning last summer as members of the U.S. youth national team.

Mira Costa lost four key players from last season's title team, but returns three starters, a stable of club players and the confidence that it has "a good chance to win a championship," according to Mustang assistant coach Cameron Green.

Loyola last defeated Mira Costa in nonleague play in 1999. Mira Costa has won the last three nonleague meetings and the last six matches overall, including tournaments.

Several Loyola players reside in the South Bay, not far from Mira Costa, and they have to live with those losses everyday.

"This match is really important. It's a huge rivalry," said Loyola setter Brian Beckwith. "A lot of us are friends because we play club volleyball together. This could be the best high school volleyball game in the country this year because of the level of talent between the two."

In past years, the match kicked off the season for both teams. This year, they agreed to move the game back a couple of weeks so that each could get the kinks out with a couple of other matches.

That provides some interesting wrinkles, according to Boehle.

"It's going to be difficult because both teams will look past their first few matches until this one comes up," he said.

This is expected to be the final season that Southern California's matches, sans playoffs, will be played under side-out rules.

Next season, high school volleyball adopts rules that have been in effect internationally and on the college level for several years.

Among other things, those rules allow for a defensive specialist -- called a libero -- and a point to be awarded on every serve.

Not that this series hasn't provided highlights the old-fashioned way.

Mira Costa Coach Mike Cook said the annual meeting has a special "aura."

On paper this match looks even better.

Among others, Mira Costa returns Tim Schneider and Josh Schwarzapel, two potent outside hitters.

Loyola has Beckwith and Jim Killian, both 6 feet 5, who may share the setting chores, although Boehle said he hasn't settled on an offense.

Nevertheless, there are five Cubs 6-3 or taller, including middle blockers Jake Schkud (6-5) and Garrett Smith (6-6).

The pressure is always on the Cubs, who are struggling with the notion that they can't win the big one, according to Boehle, who remains confident.

"Every year people say we should win the title and we stumble," he said. "Volleyball is a game of mental toughness. Players have to like each other, and one or two guys can ruin everything because they are selfish. As a coach, that's your fault. You can't teach passion and skill.

"But this season I have a lot of guys returning, and they're a good group of guys."

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