Joey Martino spent his first year with the Corona del Mar High boys' volleyball team sidelined with a back brace. He wore two, a plastic one during the day and a rubber one while he slept.
The devices to support his back for six months felt a little uncomfortable. Martino suffered a stress fracture in his back as an eighth-grader, a year after picking up the sport.
Martino no longer has the braces, which he also credits to improving his posture. As a senior, he stands tall at 6-foot-2.
With a healthy Martino on the court, opponents now brace whenever he leaps to pound the ball away.
"He's gotten better each year and it seems like he's really connected this year," Sea Kings Coach Steve Conti said of his outside hitter. "Kids expect to be superstars at such a young age. He's a great example of an athlete who's paid a lot of dues to get to this point."
Martino led CdM to a runner-up finish in the top division at the Orange County Championships on Monday, marking the Sea Kings' second top-three finish at a major tournament this season. The Sea Kings lost to Huntington Beach in three sets, the same team that ended their run during the semifinals of the Best of the West gold division tournament in Poway on March 15.
Each time, the Oilers, ranked No. 1 in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 poll, swept No. 2 CdM. Conti called out his team after the most recent match, saying his players need to have more fight in them.
Martino, who made the all-tournament team at the OC Championships by totaling 43 kills, 10 digs, six blocks and four service aces in four matches, agrees with his coach.
"We're looking for the opportunity to play them again," Martino said of the Oilers, the defending CIF Southern Section Division 1 champions. "They have a lot of experience playing together. We have more room to grow."
The only setbacks CdM has suffered this season are to the Oilers. Other than that, the Sea Kings have won 11 times, beating the likes of Newbury Park, ranked No. 6 in Division 1, and Laguna Beach, No. 3 in Division 2, and Honolulu Punahou, one of the top programs in Hawaii.
Martino and the Sea Kings will see Punahou again. They travel to Hawaii to play Punahou and Moanalua on April 11-12. The program makes the trip to Hawaii every other year, and Martino enjoys it. He said the team grows closer outside of the gym by hanging out at the beach, surfing, and running up to Diamond Head.
The last time Martino played in Hawaii was two years ago and the team was tight, helping CdM make a run at a second straight CIF Southern Section Division 2 title. The Sea Kings moved to Division 1 last season and reached the second round, losing at St. John Bosco. They took the first two sets, before letting St. John Bosco rally in five sets.
"It taught us that we weren't really completely ready for that environment," Martino said. "We've been there now and we can embrace it better next time.
"We've come a long way since last year."
Martino is one of six key players back from last season's team. The others are junior outside hitter Ryan Moss, junior opposite Kevin Fults, senior middle blocker Tommy Brooks, junior middle blocker Augie Miller and sophomore setter Matt Ctvrtlik.
Expect the Sea Kings to repeat as undefeated Pacific Coast League champions. They swept their league opener at home against Beckman on Wednesday. While the league schedule doesn't tend to challenge the Sea Kings, they do have four tough nonleague contests left, the two in Honolulu next month, at home against No. 4 Los Angeles Loyola on April 30, and the Battle of the Bay rivalry at Newport Harbor on May 9, to get them ready for the postseason.
"We're similar, but also different," said Martino, when comparing CdM's current team to the one that won the CIF Southern Section Division 2 title and CIF Southern Section California Regional Division 2 title three years ago. "I feel this year we're relying on more younger guys [like Ctvrtlik, sophomore middle blocker Will Hunter and sophomore outside hitter Sam Kobrine].
"The reason why we've [done] so [well] is that we rely on so many players. We don't have one guy we set all the time."