The City Section boys’ volleyball playoff landscape was looking pretty barren from a Valley perspective on Saturday, May 23. Perennial contenders like Granada Hills, Sylmar, and Verdugo Hills didn’t reach a final this year. Taft was the lone local representative still playing when it stared across the net at two-time defending Division II champion Eagle Rock.
“Good, no pressure,” said Toreadors Coach Arman Mercado with a laugh during the team’s pregame warmups.
Maybe Mercado was serious about the mirth. The Toreadors (30-15) looked anything but tight on the floor at Roybal Learning Center in Los Angeles, eventually overpowering the Eagles in four sets to win their sixth City title and first in this division. The other five titles came in Division I.
Afterward Mercado said his team would not be the only one celebrating the victory.
“I have alumni now in college that still text me, that didn’t get to a City championship,” Mercado said. “I showed our guys the texts, telling them this championship was for everybody. And I think instead of feeling the pressure, they took this upon their shoulders and said ‘let’s do this for everybody. We’re all in this together.’”
The second seed Toreadors certainly looked formidable going into the final. They didn’t drop a set in eliminating Grant, South East of South Gate, and Chatsworth in the playoffs. But top seed Eagle Rock (31-12) had almost the same run to the championship match, losing only one set in dispatching Panorama, Bravo and Sylmar.
The Eagles had also beaten Taft in a tournament match back in April, 2-1. Toreador middle blocker Evan Stevens, a senior, said his team was seeking some revenge but the title was more important. “We all wanted that championship,” he said.
Mercado and his staff had been myopic in the preparation for the season. “We kept preaching ‘we’ve got to practice for the big points, we’ve got to practice for the loud crowds,’ being down 0-1 or 0-2 or being up 1-0 or 2-0,” he said. Mercado added the Toreadors were also able to get some video of the Eagles’ semifinal win against Sylmar on May 19 to study. “It might have given us a little advantage.”
Whatever, Taft came out flying, especially Harry Wynn. The junior outside hitter had nine of his 26 kills in the first game, breaking down the Eagles defense like a jackhammer on concrete, and Taft rolled, 25-16.
“Coach said we had to come out with energy and beat the other team’s energy. I definitely feel we did that,” Wynn said.
Mercado had sensed that Wynn was primed for a big match. “I couldn’t bottle him up the past three days in practice,” the coach said. “I kept saying ‘Harry slow down. The game is Saturday.’”
Wynn slowed down a bit in Game Two, but Stevens and Meelad Ayub pounded home several timely kills and teamed up for a couple crucial blocks. Taft once again won going away, 25-17, and a look of dread was visible on the Eagles’ faces as the teams changed sides of the court.
The Toreadors could be heard murmuring ‘one more, one more,’ before Game Three began. And it looked inevitable when Taft broke out to a 7-2 lead. But the Eagles — and their standout outside hitter Justin Rodriguez (22 kills), a senior who constantly soared beyond the net to blast winners— weren’t going out like that. Eagle Rock eventually caught the Toreadors at 13-all, and became fueled by desperation. In the best game of the match, the scoreboard went back and fourth until Eagle Rock, on its fourth set point, finally pulled out a 30-28 victory.
Taft’s confidence didn’t appear shaken by the loss. “We weren’t concerned at all,” Wynn said. “That’s part of the sport; you win, you lose. And at the end if you’ve won that’s all that matters.”
But Mercado tried to make sure the team psyche was strong during the team huddle. “I told my guys and assistant coaches ‘hey, they have to work that hard to get a set off you, while you had dominated the other two sets.’ That gave us a little positive.”
Eagle Rock also felt renewed. It kept the score close early in Game 4, then pushed ahead 13-11 on the strength of four consecutive ace serves by senior libero Elijah Chambers. Mercado called a timeout to re-focus his team.
“I said it again —‘they’re working every single point really hard. If we match that (intensity), our skill will take care of it.’” the coach said.
Mercado was right. Taft went on to win 11 of the next 12 points, a crushing surge that flattened the Eagles. The Toreadors cruised to a 25-20 victory; fittingly, Wynn’s last kill was the final point.
As epic as Wynn’s performance seemed, it was not a solo act. Anderson had six kills and five blocks. Stevens had six kills and five blocks. David Daniali, a senior middle blocker, contributed eight kills. And sophomore libero Gersen Llima had an impressive 24 digs.
It took that kind of team performance to end five years of championship drought at Taft.
Drink up, Toreadors.