Kings of Rings

CYPRESS β€” Out of all nine CIF Southern Section boys' volleyball title appearances with Corona del Mar High, the latest one stressed out Coach Steve Conti. At first, he did not know why.

When a reporter joked if he felt stressed Saturday because it was supposed to be the end of the world, Conti just grinned. No, it had nothing to with such shenanigans.

All of Conti's stress was because the Sea Kings were supposed to win Division II. Not just win, but sweep Laguna Beach.

Who cared if the Breakers were the defending champions?

"I think it was that we had already beaten this team twice," said Conti, whose Sea Kings did more than just beat the Breakers, they swept them each time in the regular season.

"People thought it was just going to be an easy win for us and that's just not the mindset I wanted my team to have. It concerned me that they were going to be hearing about what other people kind of felt what was going to happen in this match."

The opening set did not turn out the way many predicted for CdM, the top seed. Second-seeded Laguna Beach stole the first set, causing its players to celebrate like they just won the match.

The Sea Kings had just dropped their first set in the postseason. That did not mean they were about to drop the match.

The way CdM responded only impressed Conti, who watched his team regain its composure and then winning form.

The Sea Kings never lost another set. They prevailed, 23-25, 25-15, 25-14, 25-16, at Cypress College. The players rushed the court and the fans soon followed from the stands.

Conti just smiled, shaking hands with almost everyone in the gym. He just won his fifth section championship in 16 seasons with the CdM boys, the second most in the section by a boys' coach at one school.

Beating rival Laguna Beach (20-11) felt good to Conti and his Sea Kings (29-4). The coaches and players from each side know each other well, yet the matchup between CdM and Laguna Beach in a boys' section title match was a first.

The two schools are volleyball powerhouses and they are just 10 miles apart.

The Sea Kings distanced themselves a little bit from the Breakers when it comes to section championships won. Corona del Mar is the first of the two boys' programs to seven crowns.

When the Sea Kings got their hands on the plaque, they gathered to raise it. They all had a hand in bringing home the hardware.

"I'm just blessed to have the team that I did," said Conti before singling out one player on a loaded roster.

Conti called out Spencer Haly's name, first describing him as a man. Haly sure looks like one at 6-foot-6.

The middle blocker played like a giant against Laguna Beach. In the biggest match of his four-year career at CdM, Haly produced his best outing.

The senior made sure to get Conti his first section title in four years and his first before going to Stanford to play volleyball. Haly led the Sea Kings with a career-high 20 kills on 27 attempts, with only one error, two solo blocks and four block assists.

No one on the other side of the net matched up with Haly. Size, experience, you name it, Haly had the advantage.

The only thing that nagged Haly was a left patella tendon he partially tore before the season. The trainer took care of Haly, taping his knee.

Now, all the Sea Kings needed to do was string together some crisp passes.

When CdM began passing the ball well in the second, third and fourth sets, Laguna Beach Coach Lance Stewart expected the worse.

"They just got it going," said Stewart, praising CdM's two setters, Nick Curci and Joe Ctvrtlik who finished with 27 assists apiece. "I knew if they got it going, we were in trouble."

Despite coming back to win the first set, Stewart said he never feels comfortable playing CdM, whether his team is up one or two sets.

Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Stewart once coached at CdM and led the school to two section titles.

He downplayed that, saying he guided the girls' program, not the boys, and it was a long time ago, 18 years ago.

Stewart was living in the now. He and the Breakers were trying repeat as section champions for the first time since the program won three straight from 1981 to 1983. Stewart began that run 30 years ago as a player.

A second one as the coach at his alma mater ended when he saw Laguna Beach had no answers for CdM's balanced attack.

While the Breakers had one standout, left-hander hitter Robbie McKnight (22 kills), the Sea Kings displayed a handful.

Corona del Mar's three biggest senior hitters Saturday, Haly, Brennan Anderson and Evan Dean, combined to commit just one error.

Anderson finished with 11 kills on 24 attempts, no errors, and added 17 digs. The dig total, Conti said, probably tripled Anderson's highest of the year.

Dean, an opposite bound for Pepperdine, had six kills, outside hitter Parker Brown contributed 11 kills and 10 digs, and middle blocker Jack Reed produced nine kills, six block assists and one solo block.

"The stats that you see here are the indication of what we've been doing all year," Conti said before pointing to the regular-season finale that allowed CdM to believe it could make a run at a section title. "This team kind of came out on fire to start the year and I think there was a certain point where we felt like we were playing poorly, but we kind of may have kind of slowed down that growth process. I think the match that kind of turned it around was that Newport Harbor match [in the Battle of the Bay], when we were able to kind of beat a team that beat us twice and give us that little extra edge going into the playoffs."

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