ORANGE — Craig Pazanti cradled the championship plaque securely under his left arm while he wiped his brow with his right hand late Saturday night 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, still wiping away sweat on occasion, the beads the result of an intense match his Huntington Beach High boys' volleyball team had just fought through, and survived.
Pazanti was proven right — his Oilers are the No. 1 team.
Huntington captured its first CIF Southern Section Division 1 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 crowns in 1993-94 under Rocky Ciarelli.
Pazanti, a graduate of Huntington (1989), played for and later served as an assistant under Ciarelli when the Oilers were repeat CIF 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. He made us believe we were always one of the teams to beat. Even in the down years, Huntington Beach was still one of the top programs in Orange County. I am proud to continue the winning tradition that he started.
"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 Nos. 1 (Manhattan Beach Mira Costa) and 2 (Loyola) in four days.
Huntington continued its winning ways in the opening round of the CIF Southern California Division 1 Regional on Tuesday, sweeping Clovis Buchanan. The Oilers — 32-2, winners of 22 straight — will host San Clemente in a 7 p.m. semifinal Thursday, with the winner advancing to the regional final Saturday at Santiago Canyon College
But to keep its match winning streak alive in the Southern Section final, Huntington had to overcome adversity. Its streak of consecutive matches without losing a set was snapped at 15, with the Oilers dropping the first and third sets to Loyola (30-3).
However, the Oilers regained control of the match in the fourth set and sent the Cubs to runner-up status for the second consecutive season. Last year, they lost out on the Division 1 title to Mira Costa.
"This feels so good," said sophomore outside hitter TJ DeFalco, whose block at the net from the left side on championship point gave Huntington a title-clinching 15-10 win.
DeFalco, who previously had been home-schooled, is in his first year at Huntington.
He led the Oilers in kills with 26. Senior setter Matt Butler had 51 assists.
"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 for a 13-8 advantage.
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 opposite 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 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 set ended when Gates and TenBrink teamed for a block 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 (in the playoffs), but he's our best blocker. He really made some key plays for us with the match on the line. ... I am extremely proud of him."
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. 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 that resulted in points, first on a kill, followed by a block at the net. DeFalco then landed a service ace on a jump serve. They opened up a 12-8 cushion on another kill from DeFalco and 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."