HUNTINGTON BEACH — Bullying has become a cause celebre, with stereotypical notions of intimidating actions and strong-arm tactics catching fire from society at large.
But the sanctity of using physical and mental toughness as a means of showing superiority is not only protected, but celebrated in athletic competition.
So it is that the Orange Coast College men's volleyball team found itself in position to look up to rival Golden West, after experiencing the equivalent of being knocked to the pavement, posterior first.
The host Rustlers, one day after losing sophomore opposite Weston Carico, whom OCC Coach Travis Turner considers the best player in the Pacific Coast Conference, to a broken foot, exhibited their fight with a 28-26, 25-19, 22-25, 25-27, 15-11 conference triumph that left the Pirates and some of their rooters feeling, well, victimized.
OCC was not without valor, specifically rallying to win the third and fourth set, then seizing leads of 4-1 and 7-3 in the decisive fifth game.
But as they had after forging a 20-19 advantage in Game 1, and an early 2-0 lead in Game 2, the Pirates played with a seeming lack of confidence that wound up proving to be costly.
"We just didn't show any toughness," Turner said of the Pirates (9-5, 5-3 in conference), who fell three matches behind the Rustlers (11-2, 7-0) with only four regular-season conference matches remaining. "We fought early in that first game, but when they switched the momentum, we got on our heels. We just weren't ready to battle. And we'll discuss that. If we fix that, we're going to be a pretty good team."
The same inability to battle resurfaced in the final game for the visitors, who took control early behind two kills and an ace serve from freshman outside hitter Cody Martin, as well as a kill from 6-foot-8 sophomore opposite Johannes Brink and 6-7 freshman middle blocker Conner Luckey.
Brink added a stuff block to help forge the 7-3 cushion, but Golden West, led by freshman outside hitter Matt Hilling, who amassed a match-high 33 kills, scored five straight to reclaim the lead.
The last of Brink's 24 kills knotted the score at 8-8, but Rustler kills for the next two points, gave the hosts the lead for good.
Phil Lopez, a 6-0 sophomore outside hitter, produced three of his 14 kills to earn the final three Golden West points, igniting an emotional celebratory team hug on the Rustlers' side of the net.
It was a more appropriate means of celebration than followed many of Golden West's point-making plays, as a few Rustlers drew the ire of OCC rooters, players and coaches for staring down Pirates following kills, tips, dumps, aces and blocks.
Golden West also benefited from some controversial officiating, but Turner voiced no postgame objection about that.
"If we would have fought and battled, officiating would not have been a problem," Turner said. "Golden West showed fight, a lot more than we do. We'll just keep trying to match them. Maybe we'll get them again. [Golden West] is a good team."
Martin, who Turner said committed to Long Beach State on Wednesday, led the Pirates with 28 kills, while freshman setter Brendan Duff sparkled with 62 assists and four kills.
A Duff dump closed out Game 4, extending the match one game beyond the four it took Golden West to defeat OCC on March 1 at the Pirates' gym.
Luckey, a Newport Harbor High product, had four kills and 4.5 total blocks, while sophomore middle Austin Bagby, another former Newport Harbor player, had nine kills, one ace and three total blocks.
"We're in a weird spot right now," Turner said of the conference standings, the top three from which will advance to the state playoffs. "Us, Grossmont and Irvine Valley are fighting for the last two spots [behind Golden West]. We beat [Grossmont and IVC] in the first round at home, so if we can win two of our final three, then I think we're in [the playoffs].
OCC, which has now lost two straight, will pick up a forfeit victory over San Diego City on April 3 after the Knights announced Wednesday they will not close out their schedule after removing some athletes from the team for disciplinary reasons.
The Pirates play host to Palomar on April 5, before visiting Grossmont April 10 and Irvine Valley on April 12.
Whether or not the Pirates are primed to fight for a postseason berth remains to be seen.