In all of my years of attending sporting events, I had never been to a rivalry game at which the majority of the fans of the opposing teams socialized amicably with each other both before and after the game. But then again, I had never attended a boys volleyball match between the Loyola Cubs and Mira Costa Mustangs.
Friday night’s version of this annual rivalry took place at Loyola Marymount University, and the anticipation for it was particularly high given that Loyola and Mira Costa are ranked second and third, respectively, in CIF-SS Division 1 boys volleyball. But what makes this “Battle of the Bay” so special isn’t the wealth of talent on the court; it’s the neighborhood feel emanating throughout the building.
Much is at stake whenever Loyola and Mira Costa square off, not only because both schools are perennial volleyball powerhouses, but also because several Loyola players traditionally hail from Manhattan Beach and other parts of the South Bay. This results in a showdown featuring young men who are friends and former teammates with many players standing on the other side of the net, and a building filled with fans who can’t wait to see the action unfold.
“This is the best game of the year,” said Loyola senior outside hitter Matt Reilly. “This means it all for us ... we’ve been looking forward to this game for weeks, months now. This is the defining moment of our season.”
“It’s a great atmosphere,” added Loyola head coach Michael Boehle. “These two teams, when they play, it can go either way. It just depends on who’s making fewer mistakes, or who’s playing better; who’s serving better.”
This time around, that team was the Cubs, as for the second year in a row, they defeated the Mustangs in a convincing three game sweep.
rnGame one (25-22): Sluggish start
Though the Cubs would eventually go on to dominate the night, the beginning of the match saw the Mustangs in the driver’s seat. Mira Costa junior outside hitters Jackson Wedbush and Roy McFarland’s relentless activity around the net helped the boys in white jump out to an early 9-5 lead. The boys in blue weren’t doing themselves any favors; a handful of unforced errors forced Coach Boehle to call timeout and calm his squad down.
“I said ‘listen, we’re playing timid,’” recalls Boehle. “It’s the first time for a lot of these kids in this atmosphere, in this big gym, so I think [the sluggish start] was just trying to get used to the tempo, the crowd. So I said ‘we need to settle down. They’re not earning a lot of points. We’re giving them a lot [of points] through our errors. Slow down, take a deep breath, and let’s slowly but surely get back in this.’”
And boy, did they ever. Led by outstanding hitting courtesy of Reilly, senior middle blocker Kyle Jasuta and 6’9” junior middle blocker Jack Truman, Loyola took eight of the next 11 points to regain control and reinvigorate its student section (both student sections had the sheer volume and enthusiasm typical of a student section at a state playoff basketball game).
The rest of the game was a back-and-forth battle until, with the score knotted at 21, Loyola won four of the next five points to take the game.
“I think we started to control the volleyball on our side,” said Boehle of the comeback. “We started to pass better, and then we started blocking better.”
“Coach Boehle just brought us in and said ‘this is nothing we haven’t seen before,’” said Reilly of the turning point timeout. “‘We know what we’re doing out there; just go get it. Be brave, take some swings, and just go for it.’ I think that helped us a lot.”
rnGame two (25-19): Bookend surges
Loyola picked up right where it left off in the second set. Junior setter Davis Boehle began the game with two straight aces to help Loyola snatch an early 4-1 lead. McFarland rallied his troops with a spike, which Wedbush followed with two spikes of his own to get Mira Costa back into it. A clutch point from senior middle blocker Carter Kimble gave the Mustangs a 10-9 lead, their first since early in the first set.
With Boehle and senior libero Matt Douglas splitting serving duties, the Cubs went on an efficient 16-9 run to take game two (and the air out of Mira Costa’s student section). “[The key was] setting up our passing and working out our middles,” said junior outside hitter Adam Lee of Loyola’s dominant second set. “And limiting our errors really helped us.”
rnGame Three (25-22): Soft Serve
Facing a do-or-die third set, Mira Costa received stellar contributions from Wedbush, McFarland, senior setter Trevor Liu and junior libero Sam Jones to take an 18-16 lead late in the game. Sensing a shift in momentum, the Mustang crowd came back to life, and shouted in unison, “I believe that we will win.”
But Loyola didn’t believe it; determined to make sure the match ended in a sweep, the Cubs rallied to take a 23-22 lead. Their chances of earning the sweep took a major hit —literally — when a botched Loyola serve ricocheted rapidly off of the net and into Jasuta’s face.
The subsequent bleeding took Jasuta out of the game. Someone else would have to come off of Loyola’s bench to hit the most important serve of the night.
Enter Adam Lee. A junior who hadn’t seen a second of playing time the whole night, Lee suddenly had all eyes on him at the match’s most critical juncture. Lee calmly launched a serve that grazed off the top of the net and landed on Mira Costa’s side, sending the Loyola crowd into a state of absolute pandemonium.
The Cubs’ players were electrified by Lee’s textbook ace. The sweep came to fruition on the very next play, as another solid Lee serve resulted in a game-winning block at the net by Truman.
On a night filled with highlight reel hits from Loyola regulars Reilly, Jasuta and Truman, the highlight of the night was reserved for the reserve.
“When Coach pointed at me, I just took two deep breaths, closed my eyes, and imagined myself serving,” recalls Lee. “And then, when I went back to serve, the crowd was going wild, [so] I tried to just focus my mind ... and I just let it go. Let it rip ... even though I didn’t play the whole match, that one moment defined my [place in the rivalry].”
rnUp Next: Crespi
Loyola’s next game will be at Crespi Carmelite on March 24. The Celts are sure to have their hands full trying to stop the Cubs, who proved on Friday that they have not only tremendous talent, but the work ethic to match it. “You gottagive the kids credit for the heart, the effort, and the dedication they put in [tonight],” beamed Coach Boehle. And if you’re Crespi, you’ll have to be prepared for it.