CORONA DEL MAR — Any road to a championship season has it bumps. For the Corona del Mar High boys' volleyball team, it hit a major one on April 21 in Los Angeles.
Loyola on that night swept the Sea Kings in three sets, on all three levels. On the bus ride home, Coach Steve Conti and his assistants were perplexed with how the players carried themselves.
Remember, the Sea Kings went out in the same fashion at home to the Cubs in the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section Division I playoffs last year. Another sweep did not seem to affect the players as much as the coaches.
"We kind of had too much of an enjoyable bus ride home," Conti, who made it a point to talk to his varsity players that there was no reason to be in a good mood.
"Sometimes there's a pivotal moment within your season where something occurs and clicks and connects where you get yourself to a new level. That was one of the most pivotal points in our season. Believe it or not, it was a loss that got us to where we are."
The Sea Kings never lost again, and on Friday, they reached the top of the volleyball landscape. They earned the tag national champions for the first time in the program's history.
ESPN RISE showed up to campus during lunchtime and crowned 18 players and six coaches from CdM as being part of the best program in the nation.
Organizers of the event passed out T-shirts, medals and foam fingers with the No. 1 to players and coaches. They wore the T-shirts, then the medals around their necks. Some slipped their hand into the foam finger and waved it toward the fans, students, teachers, parents and politicians attending the ceremony.
There was also a banner, a plaque and a trophy unveiled in the quad for a team finishing 32-4 this season. The man responsible for CdM's magical run just stood in front of each prize.
Conti admired each one, especially the trophy. This one was bigger than the titles won by the Sea Kings this year in the Pacific Coast League, and in both the CIF Southern Section Division II and CIF Southern California Regional Division II playoffs.
When Conti got his hands on the trophy with a glass bowl mounted on top, he tapped the bowl to make sure it was not plastic. The trophy was so large that it reminded him of the one given to the winner of the Orange Bowl in college football.
"I expect to see oranges in it or something," Conti said with a smile.
The bowl was wide enough that Conti joked that he might wash one of his two kids with it. He can do whatever he wants with the trophy, drink out of the bowl or take it with him to the U2 concert he was going with his wife, Kerrie, Friday night.
Conti earned the right to party with the trophy in any manner after he wrapped up his 16th year in charge at CdM.
He is one of the most respectful and humble coaches in the profession. He refrains from comparing championship teams, and he has coached nine boys' teams to the section title match.
This season's team helped Conti claim his fifth section crown and the program's first regional one.
The 46-year-old had a wealth of talent, with 11 returning players. Stanford-bound senior middle blocker Spencer Haly led the way, earning the CIF Southern Section Division II Player of the Year award, and Ohio State-bound senior outside hitter Brennan Anderson, junior outside hitter Parker Brown, Pepperdine-bound senior opposite Evan Dean and senior setter Nick Curci all contributed.
They made it possible to hang up a boys' national title banner in the same gym, where two girls' national volleyball title banners from 1992 and '93 are on display.
"This certainly is probably one of the special moments that I've been a part of in the 16 years here at CdM," said Conti, whose staff included Curt Hanson, Josh Ko, Brynn Maurer, and two former players, Sam Stafford and Adam Smith.
Two other former players, Gus Ellis and Kevin Welch, came out to support Conti and the Sea Kings on their special day. Ellis, a senior middle blocker at Stanford next season, won a section title with Welch in 2005, and he added another in 2007.
"We constantly talk about this being a family," said Conti, adding that players like Ellis, Welch, Stafford and Smith helped lay the path to the program's first national title. "What makes this really, really special is I think many of these national championship awards are probably won by I bet a lot of private schools. I bet the public schools that win … probably rely on kids who transfer in. We're one of the smaller schools in [Orange County], and all of these kids have grown up in this community and have gone to elementary school here.
"I take a great amount of pride knowing that, not only are we being successful, but we're doing it the right way. I don't know if there's a team out there that does it that way."