Huntington Beach spoils CdM’s chance at outright Surf League crown

Nick Ganier (24) of Huntington Beach makes a kill past the block of Corona del Mar's Sterling Foley (11).
Nick Ganier (24) of Huntington Beach makes a kill past the block of Corona del Mar’s Sterling Foley (11) during a Surf League boys’ volleyball match on Wednesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Bennet Tchaikovsky had far more to give in his return than anticipated, and Huntington Beach feasted on his splendid performance with a late rally to deny Corona del Mar its first outright league boys’ volleyball championship in nearly a decade.

The senior outside hitter — on the court for the first time since tearing his left meniscus in early March — delivered 14 kills and three service aces Wednesday night to lead the visiting Oilers to a stirring 20-25, 25-15, 19-25, 26-24, 15-10 Surf League victory, sending them into the CIF Southern Section playoffs with sizzling momentum.

Huntington Beach (26-5, 3-3 in the Surf League), two points from defeat, went on a 5-1 run to claim a tight fourth set, Tchaikovsky delivering the go-ahead and winning kills, then closed the fifth set with a 10-3 tear to complete a triumph that left CdM (21-6, 4-2) sharing the title with archrival Newport Harbor.

Corona del Mar's Sterling Foley (11) puts a kill past Huntington Beach's Logan Hutnick (11) and Justin Bulsombut (2).
Corona del Mar’s Sterling Foley (11) puts a kill deep in the back row against Huntington Beach’s Logan Hutnick (11) and Justin Bulsombut (2) on Wednesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

That was a huge disappointment for CdM, which shared Surf League crowns with Newport Harbor in 2019 and 2021 but hadn’t won by itself since a perfect Sunset League campaign in 2015. Newport Harbor (26-6, 4-2), which wrapped its regular season with a four-set home win over Edison (16-12, 1-5), extended their title run to eight seasons, including all five top-tier campaigns in the Sunset Conference era.

“It’s really unfortunate, because we had the opportunity,” Sea Kings head coach Katey Thompson said. “We could have controlled our destiny and won a [Surf] League title by ourselves, but we weren’t mentally prepared for this game, and Huntington came out aggressive, ready to win, with a chip on their shoulder. ...

“Huntington did a fantastic job tonight. They came out, they made adjustments, and our boys were not there.”

Aidan Dubno (15) and Justin Bulsombut (2) of Huntington Beach block Corona del Mar's Everett Welton (13) on Wednesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Don’t include All-CIF outside hitter Sterling Foley in that. The USC-bound senior, part of the U.S. under-19 national team, was magnificent for Corona del Mar, with 30 kills, two blocks, six aces and maybe a dozen digs to keep plays alive. He had nine kills, including the winner, in the third set as CdM pulled away with an 11-3 run for a 2-1 advantage.

“He’s the backbone of our team. He’s just fantastic,” Thompson said. “The kills and aces and defense and communication and switching of the blocking ... he’s an incredible player, and we need others to step up — not necessarily to his standard, but to their own abilities.”

The Sea Kings’ sharpness waned in the decisive moments.

Colin Choi (10) of Huntington Beach is blocked by the defense of Corona del Mar's Brady Gant (4) and Sterling Foley (11).
Colin Choi (10) of Huntington Beach is blocked by the defense of Corona del Mar’s Brady Gant (4) and Sterling Foley (11) on Wednesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“We kind of fell apart at the end,” said senior middle blocker Reid McMullen, co-captain alongside Foley. “I think it was mostly our mentality. We came into this game knowing that we had a chance to win [Surf] League [outright], and we just didn’t really pull through. Guys wanted to cruise through and get the win [rather than work for it].”

The Oilers, playing in their fourth straight five-set league match, a week earlier had overcome dropping the first two sets to edge Newport Harbor, pulling out 26-24 and 18-16 wins in the final two sets. They faltered in 3-2 decisions last month against CdM and last week at Edison.

“This puts a lot of thoughts on one or two we let get away earlier,” Oilers head coach Craig Pazanti said. “Two huge fifth sets that we had opportunities to win, and maybe win the league.”

Corona del Mar's Brady Gant (4) wins a joust at the net with Huntington Beach's Logan Hutnick (11) on Wednesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Huntington Beach received major contributions all over the court. Senior setter Jake Pazanti (57 assists), the coach’s son, orchestrated a varied attack, with senior opposite Aidan Dubno contributing 14 kills, junior middle blocker Nick Ganier had 16 kills, and freshman middle blocker Logan Hutnick added 14 kills.

Tchaikovsky, who wore a black brace on his left knee, was supposed to be limited to back-row action, and that’s where he spent the first set.

“My legs were feeling really good, my knee was feeling good, and I was like, ‘Give me a chance,’” he said. “And I got the chance, and we got it done.”

Corona del Mar's Reid McMullen (8) puts a kill past the blocks of Huntington Beach's Ben Arguello (8) and Nick Ganier (24).
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Pazanti was willing to wait until the playoff opener to fully use Tchaikovsky, his best hitter and passer, “if he wasn’t ready, but he said he was ready.”

“[He adds] more than just his hitting,” Pazanti said. “It’s kind of the whole game. It’s his passing, his leadership. He takes a little pressure off Jake having to lead the whole time, [provides] another voice. He also has a calming influence with Jake, who plays a little bit with his emotions on his sleeve, like his dad. He does a good job for us with all of that stuff.”

Corona del Mar's Sterling Foley (11) is blocked by Huntington Beach's Nick Ganier (24) as teammate Aidan Dubno supports.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Tchaikovsky said he “started picking up some of my old skills from a month ago” but “definitely had to adjust to all the movement and just the mobility that I haven’t had in the last month, but being able to go out there and jump and dive was just so much fun.”

Huntington Beach, like the rest of the Surf League quartet, appears a lock for the elite, eight-team Division 1 field, which will be revealed Saturday.

Newport Harbor 3, Edison 1: Riggs Guy supplied 27 kills and four blocks, as the Sailors defeated the Chargers 25-20, 31-29, 22-25, 25-22 on Wednesday in a Surf League finale at home.

Jack Berry had 10 kills and five blocks for Newport Harbor. Wyatt Nichols added 11 kills, and Walker Vaicek chipped in with 10 digs.

Grayson Springborn distributed 49 assists for the Sailors, who clinched a share of their eighth consecutive league championship with the win.

Staff writer Andrew Turner contributed to this report.