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Breakers are stunned

SIMI VALLEY "” Going into a hostile environment on the road, the Laguna Beach High boys’ volleyball team could expect to get a poor reception from Royal on Wednesday in the CIF Southern Section Division II semifinal match.

What hurt the Breakers more, though, was their poor serve reception. The No. 4-seeded Highlanders were able to serve well all night, using that edge to shock top-seeded Laguna Beach in four games, 21-25, 25-19, 25-16, 25-20.

“Our passing was not very good," Coach Lance Stewart said. “We let a couple of their jump-servers get on rolls. We got down [10-3] in that second game after stealing the energy. We came back and made it a game, but all-in-all, they passed and served better than we did. And the team that passes and serves better wins at this level in the playoffs. Our guys competed, they played hard, but they played better defense than we did, too."

The season may or may not be over for the Breakers. Stewart said despite the semifinal loss, he expects his team to earn a berth into the CIF Southern California Division III regional playoffs, for which brackets will be announced Sunday.

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Laguna Beach (23-6) came into the CIF semifinals on a 12-match winning streak, and the Breakers appeared to be well on their way to their first CIF final appearance since 1999 after winning the opening game. It was tied, 21-21, but a kill by Laguna Beach sophomore Robbie McKnight was followed by three straight errors by Royal, giving the Breakers the game.

The Marmonte League co-champion Highlanders (21-6) tightened their play up considerably, though, after that. The Breakers, meanwhile, came out slow in the second game and were playing catch-up for the rest of the match.

“They really out-served us," said senior outside hitter Cooper Gwaltney, who had 10 kills and an ace for Laguna Beach.

“And then we tried to keep our serves in, because we knew that we were a better passing team. But our serves were too easy. They passed it right to the setter, and they were executing. It’s upsetting."

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The Breakers jumped out to a 4-1 lead in Game 3, helped by two aces from senior middle blocker Seth Morris (seven kills). But it was ultimately short-lived. With the score tied at 9-9, Royal went on an 11-2 run, highlighted by three kills from Royal senior Danny Preece, who had a match-high 14.

“We definitely let down [after winning the first game]," said McKnight, the setter who also had seven kills and a block. “You can’t do that. We thought it was in the bag."

Game 4 was also tied at 9-9, but this time the Highlanders went on a 6-1 run to grab a 15-10 edge that they wouldn’t relinquish. The run was capped when senior Trevor Jones slammed down a kill on an overpass, something that happened far too often for Stewart’s liking.

The Breakers were hurt near the end of the game as they tried to come back, but three serves went long. The last missed serve set up match point.

“My coach always has the mentality that if you’re down, you’ve got to go for it," Gwaltney said. “To get a comeback started, you’ve got to put the pressure on, you can’t just put the ball in play."

Juniors Scott Chapel and Travis Woloson had eight and five kills for the match, respectively, while junior middle Reed Thompson continued his recent strong play with eight kills. Seven of those came in the first two games.

“We passed the ball pretty well in the first game, well enough for our middles to be a threat," Stewart said. “We just had too many unforced errors. We served consistently, we just didn’t serve tough. But we fought."

Laguna Beach has still not won a CIF title since 1983. Royal, meanwhile, is going for its first title since 2002.

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“Tonight was the night for serving," Royal Coach Dean Borth said. “It’s something we’ve been telling the boys all season long: ‘When you guys are serving tough, it’s going to be a little easier to control the match the way you want to.’ But [Laguna Beach] is phenomenal. Hit after hit after hit, those guys are not afraid to swing the ball, and I know they’re young, too. It’s kind of scary to think about that."

Borth was correct, so while the loss was tough for seniors like Morris, Gwaltney and libero Harrison Phelps, the Breakers should be back strong again next year.

“We’ll see on Tuesday," McKnight said. “We’ll go for that then; that’s all we’ve got left. But there’s always next year."

In earlier action, Laguna Beach topped visiting Agoura in a Division II quarterfinal match May 22, 20-25, 25-21, 25-22, 25-21.

Gwaltney had 15 kills for the Breakers, Woloson had 13 kills and 23 assists and McKnight had 30 assists. Morris also had a strong match with 13 kills and six blocks.

“We still haven’t played our best match," Stewart said after that match. “In order to win a championship, you’ve got to play longer and harder."

Instead, the Breakers will be at home Saturday when the finals are held.

Royal will face nearby Westlake in the Division II final; Westlake swept Thousand Oaks in another semifinal match Wednesday night.

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