NORWALK — As the Corona del Mar High boys' volleyball team lined up near the net for a photo, Coach Steve Conti lagged behind, and with good reason. Conti always stresses family with his program, and he made sure his family, his two kids and wife, shared a special moment with him and his team.
Conti asked officials for permission to grant his family access onto the court, so it could join the Sea Kings. Braden, 12, and Alexa, 11, raced toward the players, while Kerrie, Conti's wife, walked.
Conti's kids know all the players by name and they talk about their matches with their dad. The contest on Saturday is one they and the Sea Kings will never stop yakking about.
Conti led top-seeded CdM to a 25-18, 23-25, 25-16, 19-25, 15-9 victory against No. 2 Esperanza, in the CIF Southern California Regional Division II final at Cerritos College. The Sea Kings (30-3) closed out the season with the same title for the second time in four years.
Playing like a family keyed the Sea Kings' run. Tommy Brooks said this is the closest team he has ever been on during his four years at the school.
The players trusted each other throughout the season, even after they missed out on playing for a CIF Southern Section Division 1 title the week before on the same court because they failed to close in the semifinals at Los Angeles Loyola.
Since the five-set loss, Conti has emphasized aggressive play while serving, passing and swinging. When Conti didn't see that from senior Joey Martino, one of the team's best players, he pulled him in the third set against Esperanza in favor of a sophomore.
Like in any successful family, members are going to push you. Conti wanted more out of Martino, he asked for more.
"I think he was playing a little bit more passively than I would've liked to have seen him play," Conti said. "It was just an opportunity to kind of get him out and get him refocused. I think it made him pretty hungry when he went [back] out there."
Martino found his way back into the match late in the fourth set, to find his rhythm. Esperanza, leading 20-16, appeared on the verge of forcing a decisive fifth set.
The contest would go the distance, and for a second, Brooks, a middle blocker, said CdM's previous five-set match, the one at Loyola, flashed in his mind.
"But I think we all just got super excited for the fifth game and we were ready to come out and play the fifth," Brooks said.
Brooks certainly looked the part, smashing three kills early on in the final set, giving him 21 kills, to go along with five block assists, three digs and one service ace. Then Martino made his presence felt, hammering three straight kills to put CdM up, 7-3.
The outside hitter wasn't finished. Setter Matt Ctvrtlik, who totaled 66 assists, 15 digs, four kills, three block assists and one ace, went Martino's way again, and he didn't disappoint. Martino added two more kills, leaving him at five for the set and 17 overall.
"What makes this team good, as I've said all season, is we have guys on the bench that can play volleyball," Conti said. "I thought Sam Kobrine went in there [for Martino in the third and fourth set] and did some good things for us [by producing four kills, three digs and two assists]. But in the end, we wanted to get our senior out on the court. I'd like to check his stats, but [Martino's] probably five for five, hit 1.000 for Game 5."
Martino wasn't perfect in the fifth set when it came to hitting percentage. But for a guy who sat at the end of the bench, watching his team take a 2-1 lead after Augie Miller clinched the third set with one of his 10 kills, he delivered in crunch time for CdM.
At the start of the fourth set, Martino stayed seated. He rose off his seat early on, but it was because Esperanza's Jacob Arnitz, one of the top players in the nation, rolled his left ankle after a kill out of the back row. Arnitz and Martino have known each other for almost half their lives.
Arnitz, with his team ahead, 3-2, limped off the floor in the fourth set. He returned in a hurry with the set tied at 6-6. A trainer wrapped up the ankle tightly, and the 6-foot-7 outside hitter sparked Esperanza. The UCLA-bound senior didn't look like himself. He wasn't jumping as high. His shot wasn't as powerful.
None of that mattered to the Sea Kings. Esperanza (29-7), the defending Southern California Regional Division II champion, was winning the fourth set with an injured star player. Esperanza rallied around Arnitz, who finished with 21 kills, nine digs and two block assists.
"Even though he's out, other guys are going to step up in his place," Ctvrtlik said he told his team, and he was proven right as Benjamin Oxnard and Kevin Sowski finished with 13 and 10 kills, respectively, for Esperanza. "We really have to just keep it on them and keep the pressure on. When he came back, we were like, 'Oh gosh! We got to play well.'"
The Sea Kings finished off Esperanza, with junior outside hitter Ryan Moss' 17th kill. They began to celebrate together, as one team. The sight is one Conti, in his 19th at the helm of CdM, cherished being a part of with his players, his assistants and his family members.
"It's really neat for me to have all these great role models for my kids to kind of be around," Conti said. "It's special for me, because as an individual, I kind of work hard and set a good example for my kids. It's also hard being a coach, being away from your family. It's a long season. It's a grind to get this far, too. To have them just to be a part of it in a little way is really important."