Before the season got started, it seemed that the Corona del Mar High girls’ volleyball team might have been written off already.
A team does not simply replace a star player like Kendall Kipp and expect things to be the same as they were. Kipp, a 6-foot-4 outside hitter who has gone on to play for Stanford, was the runaway choice for the Daily Pilot Girls’ Volleyball Dream Team Player of the Year award last season.
The narrative of Kipp’s irreplaceability got around, and CdM would have its doubters.
Experience and grit helped the Sea Kings push through adversity, and in the end, they would be the last local team standing. Their final match on Thursday night showed more of the resiliency that Sea Kings coach Sam Stafford had come to call the team’s trademark.
Molly Joyce and Nikki Senske combined for 49 kills for No. 11-seeded CdM, but No. 3 Carlsbad La Costa Canyon earned a 21-25, 25-23, 25-17, 27-25 win at home in the quarterfinals of the CIF State Southern California Regional Division I playoffs.
La Costa Canyon (30-15) will travel to face No. 2 Foothill (27-5) in the regional semifinals on Saturday. The host Knights edged No. 7 Aliso Niguel 28-26, 23-25, 25-18, 22-25, 22-20 on Thursday.
Joyce had a match-high 25 kills to go with five service aces and two blocks for CdM (22-7). Senske added 24 kills, 11 digs and two blocks. Bella Pouliot distributed 42 assists, and Michelle Won provided 21 digs.
The Sea Kings began the regional playoffs by posting a straight-sets victory over La Jolla Bishop’s on Tuesday. As a No. 11 seed, CdM knew that it would be spending a lot of time on the road if it were to extend its season.
“I have had the best time, and I’m so happy that I got to spend my last time playing volleyball ever with these girls,” Senske said. “It’s been so much fun to play, all of us putting our hearts out there knowing it could be the last time.
“I’m just trying to savor every moment because I’m not playing in college. I don’t know what the future holds with volleyball, but I was just happy that I got to go out and play a really competitive game and lose with our heads held high.”
Sophia Tulino, a Santa Clara commit, had nine of her team-high 20 kills in the third set for La Costa Canyon.
The Mavericks needed three match points to eliminate the Sea Kings in Game 4. The second saw a dig attempt of a Senske swing send the ball skyward. The ball grazed the California flag hanging above the court and crossed the net, giving the Sea Kings the point.
An ace by Joyce gave CdM a set point to go to a fifth set, but Avry Tatum had two kills and a block assist over the final three points to help La Costa Canyon close out the match.
“At the end of the matches, when it gets down to the wire, staying confident and taking big swings is kind of what gets us through those close games,” Tulino said.
Tatum had 13 kills and 2½ blocks for the Mavericks. Taylor Putnam added eight kills and 2½ blocks, and Eva Rohrbach chipped in with six kills and 2½ blocks. Riley Dean and Cami Cox added to the defensive contributions with 16 digs and three blocks, respectively.
“We’ve been playing really, really well for about the last 15 or 16 matches, where we’ve really found a rhythm and hit our stride,” Mavericks coach Rachel Morris said. “Now, it’s just fine-tuning tiny little things that they see in each match. The girls are coming in every single day hyper-focused, making sure that they’re working hard. They really know that every practice and every match could be their last, and they’re putting everything they have into everything.”
The Sea Kings won a match that was extended to a final set on seven occasions this season, including four five-set victories en route to an undefeated Surf League crown. Stafford could only smile when asked what he discussed in the final huddle with his team.
“I’m just proud of them,” Stafford said. “I’m proud of how resilient they were. I’ve never been a part of a team that have had their backs against the wall in that many five-set matches, and just the resiliency they showed and the grit that they showed, I certainly underestimated them at the beginning of the year.
“They’ve proved a lot of people wrong, including myself.”
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