Despite dropping the first game and looking a bit shaky, the Corona del Mar boys volleyball team found their stride and took down the Laguna Beach Breakers in four games on Saturday to capture their seventh CIF division title, 23-25, 25-15, 25-14, 25-16.
It was the eighth playoff meeting between the schools, but the very first time the two rivals have met in the finals. Laguna Beach was in the finals last year and had won 13 straight playoff games dating back to last season.
First-game jitters were evident throughout the first game. A few missed serves and costly hitting errors showed up on both sides of the net, but CdM jumped out to a quick 4-0 lead. The Sea Kings showed their strategy right up front as they were feeding their big middle blocker Spencer Haly early and often as the Breakers couldn’t match up with him.
The Breakers were going to their superstar opposite, lefty Robbie McKnight, who swung away from all positions on the court. McKnight was hitting 4s and 5s while in the front row and crushing pipes and D-sets while in the back row.
It was mostly sideout volleyball until an exhausting rally with CdM up 10-8, which ended with a monster block by Haly.
Laguna called a timeout down 14-17, and whatever head coach Lance Stewart said in that huddle worked as the Breakers came out with two quick points and eventually got the score back tied at 20. Austin Hillemann gave the Breakers the lead 21-20 with a big outside kill. The Breakers fought off Haly and CdM’s other big middle blocker Jack Reed by countering with McKnight, Alek Burk, and Colin Ceithami. After trailing most of the game, Laguna got the final point on a McKnight kill and won 25-23.
Unfortunately for them, that was the high point of the match for the Breakers.
The Sea Kings led most of the next three games and look determined to take the title. CdM’s block and size became a factor in the match and Laguna just couldn’t handle the CdM middles. The second game opened with a flurry by CdM, and they went up 7-2 before Stewart had to burn a timeout. Down 23-14, Stewart was not pleased with the way his team was playing and in an effort to fire them up wound up getting a yellow card for arguing a call. The Breakers couldn’t make it back that game and lost 25-15.
The Breakers managed to stay alive for the first part of the third game, as McKnight, Ceithami, and Burk were getting kills, but some costly hitting errors stopped any rally the Breakers might have had. McKnight needed more help out there, he looked gassed. One thing that was true on both sides of the court, the liberos, Chip Zucker for CdM and Troy Donenfeld for Laguna Beach, were playing great defense and passing extremely well on serve receive. The third game was all but over after Parker Brown destroyed an X-set to put the Sea Kings up 23-13, and they’d go on to win that game 25-14.
The final game seemed like a victory lap for the Sea Kings. Laguna put up a terrific fight and played their hearts out the entire match, but Saturday was CdM’s day. More doses of quick sets, 1s and 3s, to CdM’s middle blockers put Laguna on their heels. Outside and back sets were going well for the Breakers but they didn’t have enough to overpower the Sea Kings. At 3-3, CdM decided it was time and they jumped out to a 10-5 lead and forced Laguna to take a breather at 16-9. McKnight and Hillemann continued to hack away but seeemed to run out of steam. CdM’s Jack Reed continued tot keep pace with Spencer Haly in the middle and also began hitting 2s to change up the pace. CdM wouldn’t be denied their championship as they won the fourth game of the best-of-5 match 25-16 and won the division 2 championship.
Reminiscent of Rose Bowl or Duke vs Carolina matchup, the CdM fans stormed the court in celebration and enveloped the players.
Both teams have qualified for the Southern California Regionals, which begin Tuesday. CdM will be in division 2 and Laguna Beach will be in division 3.