IRVINE — The Corona del Mar High boys' volleyball team traveled to Irvine for all of its away league matches this year, and Coach Steve Conti said at some point his Sea Kings got stagnant.
Sure, they were beating down their Pacific Coast League foes, but Conti didn't see CdM playing its best volleyball.
CdM returned to Irvine on Saturday for the last match of a magical run, and again the Sea Kings weren't clicking at the start of the match.
No one on the CdM bench was worried this time. The world "rally" itself could have been the Sea Kings' rallying cry, and they had one more in store at Irvine Valley College.
They saved one of their most impressive wins for last and beat Westlake, 17-25, 25-20, 25-23, 25-20, for the program's first CIF Southern California Regional Division II title.
The win was emotional for the Sea Kings in front of at least 1,000 of their supporters. Senior Brennan Anderson clutched the CIF championship plaque tight to his chest after the victory, making sure no one could take it away.
"I've got this and I'm not letting go," the Ohio State-bound Anderson said after pounding down 14 kills, tied for the team led with junior Parker Brown.
CdM (32-4) made sure Westlake (26-6) didn't end the Sea Kings' season on a sour note. The CIF Southern Section Division II champions did start slow, succumbing to a big Westlake block (six blocks in the first set) at first.
But the Sea Kings responded after dropping the opening set, just as they did in beating Laguna Beach in four sets in the CIF final, as well storming back to defeat Santa Margarita in five in Wednesday's regional semifinal.
"[Saturday] wasn't as bad as Game 1 against Santa Margarita," said grinning Stanford-bound senior middle blocker Spencer Haly. "So that was a good thing. It wasn't 25-10. We'd made a little more progress at the end of Game 1, so I knew we were picking up our play. We knew that if we just came out and battled like we did all year, we'd be in good shape."
Brown got going in the second set, recording five of his kills to help the No. 2-seeded Sea Kings pull away late. It was Anderson who got hot near the end, but really the Sea Kings had any number of weapons they could use.
"This is a team that didn't have a [limit] for where it could go, for its potential," Brown said. "When this team starts to get going, nothing can stop it."
The Sea Kings fell behind early in the third set against No. 5-seeded Westlake before rallying. With the score 23-23, Anderson's kill gave the Sea Kings a set point. They converted it on a big block by Haly, one of five in the match to go along with six kills.
Conti knew then his team was in good shape, with its balanced offense yet again paying dividends. Juniors Jack Reed and Remy Lamons combined for 11 kills and five blocks, and Pepperdine-bound opposite Evan Dean had six kills. As usual, the passes were crisp from setters Nick Curci and Joe Ctvrtlik, and the Sea Kings' defense frustrated Westlake Coach Doug Magorien. Anderson had 13 digs and Brown added seven.
"I thought we passed OK, but to beat that team you've got to pass great and play great defense," Magorien said. "I thought that was the difference in the match. They just waited us out for our errors on serve receive, and defensively they were much stronger than we were. I thought they did a great job there."
The Sea Kings' student section readied itself when CdM reached 20 points in the fifth set, and screamed its approval when Anderson's kill gave the Sea Kings their first match point. The students rushed the court after the final hitting attempt from Westlake sophomore Colby Magorien, one of two sons Doug Magorien had on his team, went wide.
USC-bound senior outside hitter Keats Stanley led the Warriors with 14 kills before Doug Magorien said Stanley had to run out of the gym before receiving his medal. He was headed to a friend's high school prom, which was being held on a yacht.
"It wasn't bad sportsmanship or anything like that," Magorien said. "He needed to get there. They were holding the boat for him."
Corona del Mar was happy to oblige after recording its 13th straight win to close the season.
The Sea Kings players joined in the mosh pit on the court for a while before receiving their awards. Dean was also presented with the CIF Pursuing Victory With Honor sportsmanship award for Corona del Mar.
"It was really great that so many kids, parents and people in the community wanted to come support our volleyball team," Brown said. "I want to throw out a huge thank you to all those people, for taking out time from their day to come watch us play."
It was worth it to the fans. And the last trip to Irvine this season was worth it to Conti as well, who marveled at not only his team's depth but its varied abilities.
CdM's two outside hitters – Anderson and Brown – have also been setters in the program.
"Sometimes you've got to move players around to try to get your best kids out on the court," Conti said. "We really have 10 starters, to be honest with you … What I respect most about this team is that we don't go away. We don't let [deficits] affect us."
Just after uttering those words outside the Irvine Valley College gym, Conti was affected by his players.
They hit him with an ice-water bath, maybe the last expectation met in a season of plenty of those.
"They hit every single goal that they possibly could have, and I have to tell you that I have pretty high expectations," Conti said. "I believe they exceeded my expectations with what they've done this year."