CORONA DEL MAR — Four days after Corona del Mar High closed out the regular season with a heartbreaking five-set loss at home to Newport Harbor in the annual Battle of the Bay rivalry match, Coach Steve Conti predicted that his Sea Kings would open the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs with a tough draw.
He was right.
For the third straight season, the Sea Kings faced Trabuco Hills in the postseason. The boys' volleyball programs have played each other in the semifinals and quarterfinals the past two seasons, each time CdM swept.
It wasn't going to be that easy for the Sea Kings in the first round at home on Tuesday. They took the first two sets by a combined five points, only to lose the third set by two points.
Trabuco Hills almost forced a decisive fifth set, until Conti called a key timeout with CdM ahead, 24-23, in the fourth set. The move panned out as a service error by Trabuco Hills clinched the Sea Kings' 26-24, 25-22, 23-25, 25-23 victory.
When it ended, Conti's first question wasn't about whom his team was playing in the second round on Thursday. He asked CdM's principal, Tim Bryan, something, to just crack his serious face.
"You got a few more gray hairs than I do, right?" Conti said. "Thank you for coming."
Conti thanked him because the Sea Kings' season easily could've ended that night. That's how tight the match was against Trabuco Hills, a team that shared third place in the South Coast League.
That league is also home to San Clemente and Dana Hills, the No. 3- and 5-ranked teams in the final CIF Southern Section Division I poll. That league also had four teams competing in the first round on Tuesday.
The No. 9 Sea Kings (19-10) prevented one of those teams from moving on again. The Pacific Coast League champions are up against another challenge in the second round Thursday against No. 7 Bellflower St. John Bosco (23-9). Conti said a coin flip on Wednesday will determine the host.
"In this division, there [are] so many good teams," Conti said after he learned that St. Bosco, the Trinity League champion, swept Calabasas to advance.
The Sea Kings moved up to Division 1 after back-to-back Division 2 section final appearances. The road to the championship used to go through CdM. That is not the case in the top division, especially not with a young CdM team.
The youngsters pulled through down the stretch of the first two sets against Trabuco Hills. Kevin Fults came up with three kills late in the opening set, allowing CdM to rally from a 21-17 deficit.
Trabuco Hills had set point, then things got away from the Sea Kings. CdM's Ryan Moss recorded one of his eight kills to steal the first set.
The first set featured 14 ties. The next set was almost as close, 11 times the score was even.
Trabuco Hills' big hitter, Ryan Anselmo, who led everyone with 27 kills, gave the Mustangs a 20-19 lead in the second set. That would be the last time they led in the set. CdM outside hitter Joey Martino (14 kills), Fults (seven) and Moss each pounded kills, and Tommy Brooks stuffed a shot by Anselmo, a senior bound for the University of the Pacific.
Sophomore middle blocker Augie Miller (seven kills and six blocks) and setter Matt Ctvrtlik (40 assists) played well for CdM.
After the Sea Kings claimed the first two sets, Trabuco Hills Coach Dave Hollaway asked his players if they were done.
They weren't. They took the third set, and then roared back from a 13-4 deficit in the fourth set.
The Mustangs went ahead, 21-20, their first lead in the set. Someone asked Conti if he felt nervous at that point.
"I don't have time to be nervous," Conti said. "I got to focus on the next point and what we need to do to score that next point."
Trabuco Hills helped Conti by committing three crucial mistakes, one on a net violation and two on service errors.
"They kind of were able to bail us out a few times," said Conti, who will gladly take it because it meant his Sea Kings are still alive in the playoffs.