IRVINE — Coach Steve Conti warned his Corona del Mar High boys' volleyball team before Thursday's match on the road. He said his players did not listen.
They might have a reason for ignoring Conti and taking Beckman lightly, or anyone in the Pacific Coast League. The Sea Kings had not dropped a league match in six years.
The Sea Kings quickly learned that Beckman is no longer a walkthrough. The Patriots battled CdM in the first two sets, losing each by two points, before winning the third set.
That is when CdM woke up, as the defending league champion closed things out to win 25-23, 28-26, 23-25, 25-12 and remain perfect in league. The play by the Sea Kings was not as flawless as their 4-0 record.
"I just knew that sometimes our guys … underestimate some teams if they have a certain name on their back," Conti said, "and maybe Beckman doesn't have the tradition some schools have because [its] still relatively a new school.
"But I know their coach [Darin McBain] does a super good job. I felt they outhustled us. Even though we came out on top, I felt they played with way more of a sense of purpose."
Respect is something Conti said his team must give the opposition.
The Patriots definitely earned it after challenging CdM (15-2), ranked No. 1 in the CIF Southern Section Division II coaches' poll. Seventh-ranked Beckman (16-4, 3-1 in league) is not just happy with keeping it close against the perennial league champion.
McBain wants the Patriots to be the first team to knock off CdM in league since 2005. They have the most explosive player in the league in Chris Long. The UCLA-bound senior hammered a match-high 21 kills.
Long is not that tall, at best 5-foot-10, but boy can he get up in a hurry and unleash a lethal left-handed shot.
"We just haven't seen a guy like that in a couple of weeks," Conti said. "We don't have a lefty in our gym during practice that we can get a look like that."
With Long, the Patriots are no longer a long shot to topple CdM in league.
Sure, they dropped to second place, behind the Sea Kings, but the two teams meet again in the league finale at CdM on May 5. McBain reminded his team of the match, with one condition.
"That match at the end of the year is going to mean nothing if we don't take care of Irvine twice, and we don't get through these other guys in league," McBain said to his players. "We can't let down."
After losing nail biters in the first two sets, the Patriots continued to fight.
The second set was a tough one for Beckman to see CdM take. The Patriots rallied from a 24-20 deficit, tying the set after scoring four straight points. It was the 11th time the teams were even during the set.
Long tied it again, for a 13th time, when he recorded a kill. At 26-26 and with Beckman serving, Eric Shih's ball hit the net. The Sea Kings now just needed one point to go ahead, 2-0, in sets, and they got it when middle blocker Spencer Haly blocked a shot.
"I really feel like we had a good shot at winning that [set]," McBain said. "[Twenty-six] all and we go back and miss the serve, kind of take the air out of the place. I would like to have that serve back and see what happens."
What happened to CdM was it saw its first test in league in years.
The Sea Kings survived, and much of it because they have the most talent in the league, evident from almost five players finishing with double-digit kills. Parker Brown led CdM with 13 kills, followed by Haly's 11, Brennan Anderson's 10, and Jack Reed and Evan Dean each had nine.
"Hitting wasn't our problem. It was desire," Conti said. "To me, [desire is] what it takes to play good defense.
"I don't know if these guys got one eye on [next week's] spring break and one eye on volleyball."