Corona del Mar High Coach Steve Conti says he was a little bit smarter with his scheduling.
Rather than start the season with Los Angeles Loyola again, he decided to push it back toward the end of it. Almost half of his boys' volleyball team plays a sport in the winter, and against Loyola, Conti preferred CdM to be at full strength.
After last season's opener at Loyola, where Conti said it looked like his young Sea Kings had never played volleyball before, losing in three sets, the move made sense.
At this stage of the regular season, with one week to go, CdM played host to Loyola on Wednesday. The matchup between the No. 2- and No. 4-ranked teams in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 poll carried major playoff seeding implications.
Barring a major meltdown, CdM is primed to earn the No. 2 seed after it topped Loyola, 22-25, 25-23, 25-11, 25-21. The Sea Kings' first win against the Cubs in four years most likely guarantees they don't have to face No. 1 Huntington Beach, the only team that's beaten CdM, until the CIF Southern Section Division 1 finale, if both programs make it that far.
"I don't think there's a team that probably wants to be on the same side [of the playoff bracket] with Huntington," said Conti, referring to the defending section champion, which has swept CdM twice this season. "Since [No. 3] Redondo [Union] beat Loyola earlier, if we would've lost to [the Cubs], chances are we probably would've moved to that No. 4 spot. It's not about the seedings. It's really just about going out and playing good volleyball at this point of the year, and trying to peak and play your best at the end of the season."
With three matches left before for the postseason begins, CdM (21-2) continues to roll. The Sea Kings won their 11th in a row, dropping only two sets during the stretch. Outside of their contests against Huntington Beach, CdM has lost four sets all season.
The opening set on Wednesday went to Loyola (18-3). Both teams played tentative, and none went ahead by more than three points. The Sea Kings, leading 21-19, allowed the Cubs to close it out on a 6-1 run. Afterward, Conti told his assistants, "I didn't feel like we played with a lot of confidence. We didn't play like a 20-2 team in that first set."
You can attribute some of that to Loyola's success. The Cubs have reached the section finale in each of the past two seasons, losing to Manhattan Beach Mira Costa two years ago and Huntington Beach last year.
Under Coach Michael Boehle, in his 16th season, Loyola has claimed five section titles. Conti, in his 19th season at CdM, has just as many with his boys. The two men are highly regarded in their sport, and their teams have scheduled home-and-away matchups the last few years.
The latest turned out much differently than the previous four meetings. Middle blocker Tommy Brooks led the way for CdM, finishing with 16 kills with only one error, to go with one solo block and four block assists, and outside hitter Joey Martino had 11 kills and four digs. Setter Matt Ctvrtlik, who collected 40 assists, ran plays for Brooks and the senior hurt the Cubs in the last three sets.
Late in the second set, Brooks hammered a kill, and then dropped a service ace in the right corner. The Sea Kings went ahead, 21-18, and the team's other middle blocker, Augie Miller, sealed it with one of his four kills. The Sea Kings, on their fourth chance to put the second set away, stopped Loyola from storming back as it did in the first set.
The third set belonged to CdM. After Loyola outside hitter Hayden Boehle recorded one of his 14 kills to tie the set at 4-4, the Sea Kings went on a 13-0 run. Everyone seemed to contribute. Brett Schisler served strong, opposite Kevin Fults (eight kills) had a kill, even Ctvrtlik slammed one down, along with Brooks and Ctvrtlik combining to stuff shots, and outside hitter Ryan Moss (seven kills, two block assists, one ace) produced a winner.
Moss, a junior committed to USC, played in his second straight match after sitting out more than a week with what Conti said was inflamed tissue between his ribs.
"It had been bugging him for a few weeks," Conti said. "He just didn't tell me, until about a week and a half ago. He texted me and said, 'Can I come talk to you?' In hindsight, if I had known, I probably would've sat him … to give him a little bit more time [to recover]. They don't want to miss these matches."
A lot was at stake for CdM and Loyola. Boehle left the gym frustrated after his team's performance in the third and fourth sets, the latter in which Loyola saw CdM finish on an 11-4 run.
"I have no idea what happened," Boehle said of the third set, when the match turned in CdM's favor. "It wasn't like they were ripping serves at us. They were float serving us, and that was the hard part for me to understand, 'What's going on here?' We got guys not calling for the ball. Credit them for the well-schemed match. They did a heck of a job in scouting us, they outplayed us in every part of the match, and we didn't counter. They punched us in the mouth, and we fell down and didn't want to get back up. That's not our typical Loyola teams."