There is often a sports contingency that gives value to a high school championship only to those competing at the highest division, as if that automatically assigns the very best teams and very best players to the very best competition.
While there could be some truth to that, it doesn’t mean those winning titles in lower divisions should have to apologize or feel downgraded. The floor burns are the same, the practices-to-make-perfect are just as demanding. And so are the levels of joy and disappointment from the outcomes.
Taft and Verdugo Hills weren’t playing for the City Section Division I championship in girls’ volleyball on Saturday, Nov. 22, at Royal Learning Center in downtown Los Angeles. Taft was in the Division II final, and Verdugo Hills the Division III final. But when both teams proved triumphant in their matches against Sylmar and Franklin of Los Angeles respectively, the shrieks, tears and hugs could not have been anymore meaningful than if they had just won Olympic gold medals. Add in the raising of trophies, and one comes away with the singular thought: a championship is a championship, no matter what level.
Plus some of the back stories are fun.
Taft vs. Sylmar
Those looking for a Valley “bloodbath” in the Division II match between the second seed Spartans and top seed Toreadors would have to look elsewhere. There was no “bulletin board” material going back and forth (or in this modern age, inflammatory texts), no generational grudges. The teams actually like each other; when a Sylmar player dislocated a knee during a nonleague match between the teams, players from both schools crowded around her to offer comfort and encouragement.
In another example of mutual respect, Sylmar was cited for a uniform violation (the numbers on their jerseys being too low) and had to start Game One already down 1-0. In Game Two, Taft did not return Sylmar’s opening serve so it would similarly trail at the start.
But on this day there was no question who played the better match. Taft swept Sylmar in the best 3-of-5 by identical scores of 25-21. And while each game had its own distinct flavor, and the scores competitive, the results seemed almost a foregone conclusion.
In Game I the Toreadors (31-9-1) rushed out to an early 9-2 lead, then spent the rest of the contest holding off any and all Spartans’ efforts to catch up. In Game Two, it was Sylmar (25-9-2) that got out quickly, 10-4, but Taft eventually tied the score at 20, then won five of the last six points. And in Game Three, Taft Coach Arman Mercado made sure every Toreador player got on the floor and played a point or two. Yet when Taft took the lead in the game, 12-11, Sylmar was never able to get back in front.
Part of the reason for Taft’s dominance — it’s two leading outside hitters Andrea Bosnic (17 kills) and Lara Janjic (eight kills), both seniors, were able to neutralize the monster performance by Sylmar sophomore Kashauna Williams (19 kills). Another key reason was experience. Taft had it and Sylmar did not.
This was the fourth consecutive final for this group of Toreador seniors. And, coupled with last year’s championship, they became the first Taft girls’ team to win consecutive titles in the school’s history (and fourth overall).
“One thing really special about this senior class: they are all home-grown, no transfers” Mercado said. “They’ve been with me for four years, and to this day they’ll still surprise me in practice and matches…only Andrea and Lara had a [club] background of playing. I’ll remember this group as much as any I’ve coached.”
Bosnic — who had worked through a torn hamstring injury this season that kept her from playing club volleyball and limited her practice time with Taft — also spoke to the closeness of the team.
“It was a hard season in the beginning, with the new players coming together,” she said. “But the point of emphasis was always we had to work hard to match up how we played last year to come to the finals again. And the seniors and returners all feel this is a special program at Taft. We knew what [the disappointment would be] if we didn’t win, and how special it would be if we did.”
This group of Sylmar players, on the other hand, had never played in a final, and Spartans Coach Soheil Mashhoud could see where bouts of anxiousness could have played a role in some of the critical points in the games, when Sylmar would overpower a kill shot or be hesitant on a serve.
“We were a little emotional,” the coach said. “We knew they played better, but either one of us could have won that match, especially Games Two and Three. There were some nerves in the first game. After that we settled down, and I thought they played well.”
A good chunk of this Spartans team, led by Williams, returns next season. Maybe in a couple of years Mashhoud will speak of this group with the same fondness that Mercado had for his 2014 squad.
Verdugo Hills vs. Franklin
Verdugo Hills told itself to respect Franklin. Yes the Panthers (8-6) had not gone to any tournaments and only played in Eastern League matches. But anytime a No. 9 seed can beat a No. 1 seed, as Franklin did in the quarterfinals by defeating King Drew of Los Angeles (and also eliminating Panorama and Arleta), an appearance in the final by that team should not be seen as a fluke.
“I thought they were a lot like us — not big, but very scrappy and efficient,” Verdugo Hills CoachWill Reinhart said of Franklin.
Still, the Dons (21-8-2), seeded third, weren’t required to do much dragon-slaying in the postseason. They had lost only one game while dispatching Los Angeles schools Roybal, Manual Arts and Westchester.
And this close to a championship, their first since winning the 2007 City Invitational, the Dons were not going to let arrogance and shortsightedness ruin a magical moment.
Instead Verdugo Hills took the final step in its quest of a Division III title by winning in four sets. The first game, a 24-10 victory, was the only one that could be considered a rout. Franklin proved to be a pretty even match, winning the second game 25-20, before Verdugo Hills pulled out the last two sets, both by scores of 25-21.
The third game was the most competitive and highly pivotal. The Dons had surged to leads of 10-4 and 18-9, but the Panthers kept clawing their way back. It was 22-21 in favor of Verdugo Hills when Franklin outside hitter Angela Basco slammed a potential game-tying kill toward the corner of the court.
If the ball was in-bounds, and Franklin had tied the score and gone on to win, all the momentum would be with the Panthers. But it just missed, literally by inches. The Dons went on to close out that game and the next to win the match.
“It was very hard to put them away. But that’s what we were expecting,” Reinhart said. “They played great defense, and they never quit on any point. But our girls were persistent, too. And I can’t say enough about our senior captain Ariana Espindola, (a team-high 12 kills). She’s been our heart and soul. And our subs (Kaylee Rydell and Joriz Cuyugan) were also key for us. We said to them all year even if you are a reserve player you have to be ready to step in at the moment you’re called upon. And they did it.”
The victory also ended a personal dubious streak for Dons Coach Will Reinhart, whose teams (three girls and two boys had lost their last five finals appearances.
“Now I’m back on the right side of things,” he said.