ORANGE — Craig Pazanti cradled the championship plaque securely under his left arm while he wiped his brow with his right hand late Saturday at center court at Santiago Canyon College.
"I've been telling the kids all year, that I thought they were the best team," Pazanti said, the sweat he was still wiping away on occasion, the beads the result of an intense match his Huntington Beach High boys' volleyball team had just fought and survived.
Pazanti was proven right — his Oilers are the No. 1 team.
Huntington captured its first CIF Southern Section title in boys' volleyball in 19 years by twice rallying from a one-set deficit, to knock off Los Angeles Loyola in a five-set thriller, 26-28, 25-23, 19-25, 25-22, 15-10.
It was the program's first title since the school won back-to-back titles in 1993-94 under Rocky Ciarelli.
Pazanti, a graduate of Huntington, was an assistant coach to Ciarelli when the Oilers were repeat champs two decades ago.
"I'm in my dream job," Pazanti said of coaching at his alma mater. "Huntington hasn't won a title in 20 years, but we've always been successful, and that is because of Rocky.
"This is just incredible. I couldn't be more proud of these kids. We were down but we always fought back. To win this, win in Game 4, after we were handled in Game 3, is a testament to this team. Just incredible."
To win the program's third Division 1 title, Huntington, the No. 4 seed in the tournament, beat the Nos. 1 (Manhattan Beach Mira Costa) and 2 (Loyola) teams in four days. Saturday's victory put the Oilers to 31-2, took their match win streak to 21 and should all but assure them a first-round home match on Tuesday for the opening round of the CIF Southern California Division 1 Regional.
The only thing Huntington lost out on, was it had its streak of consecutive matches without losing a set in a best-of-five set match, snapped at 11.
The Oilers dropped the first and third sets to Loyola but played in control late in the fourth set and throughout the decisive set to defeat Loyola (30-3).
The Cubs finished as Division 1 runner-up for the second straight year. Last year, they lost out on the title to Mira Costa.
"This feels so good," said junior outside hitter TJ DeFalco whose block at the net from the left side on championship point in the fifth set gave Huntington a title-clinching, 15-10 win.
DeFalco, who previously had been home schooled, is in his first year at Huntington.
"This is my first year in a public school and to win a CIF championship, is just unbelievable," he said. "This is my first high school experience, and it's a great feeling."
Huntington bounced back from a 28-26 first set defeat to even the match. In the second set, the Oilers went on a 5-0 run to take a 10-6 lead which ended on a kill by DeFalco. They again led by five when senior middle blocker Andrew TenBrink came up with a key play by scoring on a ball that had ricocheted off the piping that ran along the top of the gymnasium roof. TenBrink was in the perfect spot for the deflection, which he then placed between a seam on the Loyola side of the court.
Loyola drew to within a point on four occasions, the last time at 24-23 on a lift call against the Oilers, but a kill from the left side by senior Zach Gates gave the Oilers a 25-23 win.
The Cubs controlled the third set. They opened up leads of 13-6 and 20-13, and took a 25-19 win when Gates sent a shot into the net.
"I thought we came out pretty flat," Gates said of the Oilers' 2-1 deficit. "We weren't passing the ball well. It was all about us getting back to playing our game, setting up the pass. We have a great setter in Matt [Butler] and we started to set up our offense, which Matt ran really well."
In the fourth game, Loyola went up, 18-16, on a jump serve ace by junior outside hitter Hayden Boehle. On his next serve, however, Boehle served into the net. The error started a critical, 6-0 run for Huntington and the Cubs, who had gave up several points on multiple serving errors in all five sets, never recovered.
A kill by Gates tied the score (18-18) and a block by DeFalco put Huntington in front for good at 19-18.The Oilers' lead went to 22-18 when Loyola middle blocker Garrett Mohr sent a shot wide. The set ended when Gates and TenBrink teamed to block Loyola middle blocker Chase Corbett at the net, and Huntington's 25-22 win set up a winner-take-all fifth set.
"We made a few changes in our rotation in the fourth set, and it paid off," Pazanti said. "We were passing well and really attacking at the net. I think a huge key was Drake Evans who really gave us a big, emotional lift off the bench. He doesn't get many touches but he's our best blocker. He really made some key plays for us with the match on the line."
It was all-Huntington in the fifth set after the Oilers had fallen behind, 2-1. A kill from the left side by DeFalco started a 4-0 run for the Oilers who opened up a 5-2 lead. A kill by Cubs' outside hitter Hagen Smith put the score at 5-3, but back-to-back plays by Evans, triggered a 3-0 run for Huntington.
The junior middle blocker came up with two key sequences in the middle, first, on a kill, followed by a block of a shot at the net by Loyola middle blocker Cole Paullin. DeFalco then landed a service ace on a jump serve, and the Oilers suddenly had an 8-3 lead. They opened up a 12-8 lead on another kill from DeFalco, saw the Cubs close to within 12-10, but then scored the final three points of match to win the title.
"Coach [Pazanti] told us before the game that it had been 20 years since a Huntington team had been here," Gates said. "He told us, if we won, we would leave a legacy here. He said, 20 years from now, people will remember this. We did it."