There is something about Texas and playing against older players that gets the best out of Cole Pender whenever he is with the Balboa Bay Volleyball Club during this time of the year.
Three times Pender has played a division up with Balboa Bay at the USA Junior National Championships in the Lone Star State and each time he has left with gold.
Pender did at age 12 with the 14-and-under boys' team in Dallas four years ago. Two years later, at 14, he pulled it off with the 15-and-under team in Houston.
Now the 16-year-old has won it all with the 17-and-under team in Dallas.
Pender, an incoming junior at Newport Harbor High, led the Balboa Bay Blue to a 25-13, 25-23 sweep of Thousand Oaks Spectrum Volleyball Club in the open division final on Wednesday, avenging last year's championship-match loss.
That tournament was in Ohio. In Texas, Pender is king. He and Balboa Bay capped a remarkable run, going 11-0 during the four-day tournament, sweeping 10 opponents in the best-of-three format.
At the end, Pender, an outside hitter, was named tournament MVP. The top award is a first for Pender, who was all-tournament the previous two years.
"The gold medal experience is like nothing else," Pender said. "I loved every second of it.
Pender's teammates included Spencer Lawrence, a future senior at Newport Harbor, and Carlos Rivera, a senior at Newport Harbor last season. Both were all-tournament honorees. The team also consisted of incoming CdM seniors Clay Dickinson, Grant Shaw and Jake Meyer.
"The team fought hard and we knew we were the team to win it this year and [I] wasn't going to let anyone get in our way," Pender said. "We peaked at the right time and everyone was a part of the great experience.
"This is my third gold and every gold medal just keeps getting better and better."
Balboa Bay enjoyed historic success at the tournament. The Newport Beach-based club won five gold medals, four in the open division — the 18 Blue, the 17 Blue, the 15 Blue and the 14 Blue, all of which went undefeated — and one in the club division, the 14 White.
"It was unreal," said Travis Turner, Balboa Bay's club director for high school ages since 1997. "I've never seen anything like this. We actually held the Junior Nationals record for winning three gold medals during one tournament, and we did it in 2008 and 2009. Now we have won five golds."
Three of those five Balboa Bay Blue gold-medal-winning teams also boasted the tournament MVP in their respective open divisions.
Matt Ctvrtlik, a recent CdM graduate, was the tournament MVP in the 18s, lifting Balboa Bay to a 22-25, 25-20, 16-14 win against Sports Performance Volleyball Club, which is from Aurora, Ill.
Ctvrtlik, a five-time All-American and setter headed for Harvard, teamed up with Sea Kings middle blockers, Will Hunter, a recent graduate and an all-tournament member, and Mitch Haly, who will be a senior next season.
Rocky Ciarelli, the Newport Harbor boys' volleyball coach, guided the CdM trio, along with Ctvrtlik's dad, Bob, a three-time U.S. Olympic men's volleyball player.
"It's always fun when Matt's on your side," said Ciarelli, whose Sailors lost in three sets to rival CdM in the Battle of the Bay match two months ago. "Matt really played good defense the whole tournament. He can block, and not all setters are good blockers. He serves well, and his setting is always good because he mixes it up and keeps the offense balanced."
Joe Karlous, a future Newport Harbor sophomore, also stood out at setter for the Balboa Bay 15s. He took home the tournament MVP award after Balboa Bay knocked off Puerto Rico's Naranjito Volleyball Elite, 25-22, 25-23, in the final.
The Balboa Bay 15s included incoming CdM sophomores Adam Flood, an all-tournament selection, Matt Olson and Max Dunk, as well as incoming Newport Harbor sophomore Jack Rogers. All four, along with Karlous, started for Balboa Bay.
The Balboa Bay 14s featured the sons of longtime Back Bay high school volleyball coaches, Dan Glenn, who is in charge of the Newport Harbor girls and is an assistant with the boys, and Steve Conti, who is at the helm of the CdM boys. Their sons, Jaden Glenn and Braden Conti, helped Balboa Bay defeat the Southern California Volleyball Club, 25-18, 25-14, in the final.
Jaden and Braden will also play together in high school, at CdM next season as freshmen.
"It just goes to show that I'm not that good of a recruiter," Dan Glenn said jokingly. "We live on CdM's side and many of his club teammates, [Justin Browning, Austin Chandler, Micah Look and Shane Premer], are going to [CdM], so he wants to go there and I understand that he wants to play with his friends. A couple of the players [Owen Fisher and Caden Garrido] on the club team are coming to Newport.
"I'm 0-2 with my kids [coming to Newport Harbor]. My daughter, [Hailey, an incoming sophomore], is on the varsity dance team at CdM. I have a daughter, [Tegan, who's 12] and she still wears a lot of Newport Harbor stuff, and my son, [Brogan] is only 9. If my girls decide to play for [CdM girls' volleyball coach] Steve Astor or my boys for Steve Conti, I'm OK with that because those two are my good friends."
Glenn didn't get to coach his son at the tournament, but he did guide the Balboa Bay 14 White team to gold in the club division.
Glenn and his Huntington Beach childhood friend Mike D'Alessandro coached Balboa Bay, which included future Newport Harbor freshmen Hunter Barnett, Dane Carroll, Kori Griscom, Robert Spooner and Sam Walton, as well as CdM incoming freshmen Joshua Friedman and Glen Linden.
Balboa Bay swept 10 of its 11 matches, the lone exception being a 25-20, 17-25, 17-15 victory in the final against Puerto Rico's Ultimate Volleyball System.
"It was a lot of fun coaching with Mike," said Glenn, who also had D'Alessandro as an assistant when Glenn led the Newport Harbor boys' volleyball team to the CIF Southern Section Division 4-A title in 1987, his first season with the Sailors. "We actually won a Junior Olympic title in Illinois back in 1978 or 1979, when we were playing together for a club team in Huntington Beach. Rocky was our coach back then."
Ciarelli is now coaching with Glenn at Newport Harbor. The coaches also saw two other Sailors, Will Axton and Dayne Chalmers, contribute to Balboa Bay's impressive finishes in Dallas.
Axton, who will be a junior next year, was an all-tournament pick after the Balboa Bay 17 White won bronze in the club division. Chalmers, a future sophomore, earned all-tournament laurels for the Balboa Bay 16 Blue, which was fifth in the open division.
"It is tough to win a gold due to overall talent, referees, travel, but to win five golds, a bronze and a fifth place is pretty special," said Charlie Brande, who founded Balboa Bay in 1975. "[The success is] a credit to our players, coaches, Travis Turner's organizational skills, and the support and confidence of these parents."
Other local standouts in Dallas included recent Costa Mesa graduate Mason Tufuga. The Stanford-bound opposite helped the Lake Forest-based Orange Coast Volleyball Club claim the 18s title in the club division with a 26-24, 25-21 win against the Cincinnati Attack Volleyball Club Black.
Kevin Kobrine and fellow future CdM juniors Brandon Browning and Patrick Paragas, led the San Juan Capistrano-based 949 Volleyball Club Black to the 16s open division crown.