Conti on his game

IRVINE — A short time after guiding his team to a momentous comeback win, Steve Conti was showered with water as he spoke with reporters outside of the Irvine Valley College gym.

Some of Conti's Corona del Mar High boys' volleyball players offered the coach a jacket because it was cold.

"It's OK, don't worry about that," Conti said. The coach wanted to soak it all in.

After coaching his Sea Kings to a 17-25, 25-20, 25-23, 25-20 victory over Westlake Saturday, it was definitely OK to celebrate. With the win, CdM captured its first CIF Southern California Regional championship. This one came in Division II and featured the Sea Kings' big-time response from a first-set loss.

After CdM lost the first set, Conti told his players to be patient. He showed confidence in them and believed they could come back. He had seen them do it earlier in the week in a regional semifinal win over Santa Margarita win. And he had seen them do it against Laguna Beach last week for the CIF Southern Section Division II championship.

That CIF crown gave Conti his fifth section title in 16 seasons with the CdM boys' program. It's the second most in the Southern Section by a boys' coach at one school.

Conti has built a strong boys' volleyball program at CdM with stern leadership that comes with a laid-back feel. During Saturday's match he wore a short-sleeved button shirt and jeans with sneakers.

Players who go through Conti's program rave about his attention to detail and his focus on a hard work ethic.

"He's an absolutely amazing coach," said Scott Slaughter, a former player who recently helped lead UC Santa Barbara to a runner-up finish in the NCAA Tournament. "He's probably the best coach I've ever had. He's strict, but very fair.

"We've kept in touch. He always sent me congratulations in our playoff run. The other day we talked on the phone for about 30 minutes. I still call him 'coach.' He's always looking out for us, his former players. A lot of his former players still keep in touch with him."

Slaughter has finished playing at UCSB. He said he's planning to compete overseas. Conti has been helping Slaughter reach that goal by putting him in touch with people with the international connections, Slaughter said.

Conti remains busy with the boys' team and his family. He turned down the opportunity to coach the girls' team once again at CdM because he wanted to devote more time with his family. The boys' team keeps him busy enough.

But if some of his former players really want to keep in touch with him they know where to find him. They go to the beach, where Conti likes to catch waves. That's where former player Phil Bannan finds him.

Bannan graduated from CdM in 2007. As a setter he was a part of two CIF section championship teams, with Slaughter in 2005 and then later in 2007. The Sea Kings reached the final in 2006.

Bannan enjoyed a solid career at UC San Diego, where he achieved a stellar senior season. He's graduating next week with a degree in communications and then he's off to do an internship with Hurley, he said.

He said he owes a lot to Conti.

"He kind of shaped the way I played volleyball," said Bannan, who broke UCSD records for career assists (4,399) and service aces (110). "He gave me a great work ethic and molded me into a setter. I learned how to work hard from all those days at CdM with him."

The Sea Kings played hard for Conti Saturday against Westlake. They listened to their coach, who told them to keep pushing, don't stop believing.

"He is a really encouraging coach," CdM senior Evan Dean said. "He really wants you to succeed. He pushes you to do hard work. After you get to know him you get the idea that all he does is really beneficial to you."

The parents and CdM fans also enjoy Conti. The Sea Kings' supporters came out in full force Saturday, as they packed a side of the IVC gym, roughly 1,000 of them cheering for the CdM team. Many of them rushed the court after the Sea Kings pulled off the win.

When CdM received its championship plaque, Conti hugged several of his players, lifting some of them off the ground because he had so much joy.

Parents and other people congratulated the coach afterward.

"He does a great job not just the tactical side of the game, but really just building the character of the kids," said Bob Ctvrtlik, a former Olympic gold medalist and volleyball hall of famer who has a son, Joe, on the team. "He's really committed and just a neat person who really cares about the kids."

Conti said thank you to the people who congratulated him. To some he talked about his special team, one of the greatest he's ever had, he said. Conti doesn't usually talk about himself. If you want to know about him, just look at his teams.

"Amazing," Conti said of his players' performance after Saturday's win. "It's amazing how much heart and perseverance this team has shown throughout the year."

In this instance it appears the players were a reflection of their coach.

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