CYPRESS — Coach Steve Conti has built three dynasties in three decades with the Corona del Mar High boys’ volleyball program.
Each of them made runs to CIF Southern Section title matches in consecutive years, from five straight appearances, to three in a row, to two.
The latest group tried to make history Saturday, at the same venue where CdM won the Division 2 title last season.
Leading up to the final, Conti said he kept hearing how hungry his team’s opponent looked. Conti and the Sea Kings saw Oak Park up close for the first time in a couple of months and the Wildcats stared them right in the eyes.
“You could see the determination that they have,” Conti said.
Oak Park wasn’t going home without the top hardware. The Wildcats had been on this stage before and they grew tired of coming up short in section final appearances, losing four times in the big match in the last six seasons.
Top-seeded Oak Park finally broke through, defeating second-seeded CdM, 22-25, 25-22, 25-17, 25-21, at Cypress College.
The Sea Kings will have to wait until their next dynasty to claim back-to-back crowns for the first time in their program’s storied history.
The defending section champion Sea Kings (25-7) fell for the second time against Oak Park (30-6) this season. The first time was at the start of the season. The second time might have ended CdM’s season.
Unable to defend the section crown, CdM might not get a chance to defend its CIF Southern California Regional Division II title.
Conti began the rundown of the teams earning berths into next week’s regional. The list did not include his own team.
The teams Conti named, South Torrance and Los Angeles Cathedral, won Division 3 and Division 4 section titles, respectively, on Saturday. For the regional tournament, those two programs are in Division II.
The Sea Kings’ best shot to keep their season alive was to knock off Oak Park and grab the division’s automatic entry into the regional tourney. The section only gets four entries, the fourth is going to Manhattan Beach Mira Costa, which knocked off Los Angeles Loyola in the Division 1 section final.
Things looked promising after CdM took the opening set, becoming the first team in the playoffs to win a set against Oak Park. Just like the Wildcats, the Sea Kings swept each of their three opponents in the previous rounds.
Parker Brown, as he has throughout his senior season, led the way for CdM.
The outside hitter recorded nine of his match-high 26 kills in the first set. He attacked from everywhere — near the net and from the back row — to pound shots. He also tapped the ball into an open space, making it look easy.
The next three sets were far from easy for the Sea Kings.
No team had a lead larger than two points in the second set, until Bradley Sakaida’s service ace put Oak Park ahead, 24-21. The entire set was that tight, 14 times the teams were even on the scoreboard.
At set point, the Wildcats closed it out. Middle blocker Mike Campbell hammered one of his five kills to even the match.
In the following set, Oak Park began to take control. The Wildcats slowed down many balls, helping them take a 14-9 lead, the biggest any team had at that point in the match.
The advantage grew to as many as nine, as Campbell stuffed back-to-back shots from Brown. The Wildcats ran away with the third set, giving them a 2-1 edge.
The momentum was on the Wildcats’ side. They came out swinging in the fourth set.
Right away, opposite Nick Fahn (10 kills) unloaded a left-handed shot, which popped libero Erik Ctvrtlik in the mouth and knocked him backward. Stanford-bound setter Joe Ctvrtlik, who finished with 43 assists, checked on his younger brother, who rose to his feet, checking to see if his teeth were still in place.
He didn’t lose a tooth, but he and the Sea Kings were on their way to losing their third consecutive set and shot at making history.
The night belonged to Oak Park, which won its first section title. Senior outside hitter Justin Parks led a senior-laden team with 22 kills.
“Sometimes when you haven’t won one yet, [it pushes you to get it done],” said Conti, who has a 5-5 record in boys’ section title matches in his 17 seasons with the Sea Kings.
“They’re a very good team and they’re a very hungry team. They’ve been here several times before.”
So have the Sea Kings, who again were unable to win back-to-back section titles.