There had been so little drama at the City Section girls’ volleyball championships at Roybal Learning Center on Saturday, Nov. 21. Verdugo Hills and Chatsworth had won the Division III and Division II titles in straight sets against Arleta and Venice. Surely the upcoming Division I match between Carson, the top seed, and El Camino Real, seeded second, would provide some tension — or at least a fourth set.
No way. The Conquistadors (26-11) methodically beat down the Colts in three, 25-22, 25-15 and 25-21.
It should have sucked all the remaining air out of the gym. But this was special. It was the first ever title for ECR in girls’ volleyball. That alone prompted great joy and celebration, with the flurry of “It’s so great!” It’s so amazing!” exhortations bouncing around the gym.
You wanted drama? The Conquistadors lived with it all season. And it’s a tale that, in time, will grow into legend.
Head Coach Ian Lee and his players had learned before the summer that the school’s gym floor was undergoing renovation and might not be ready by the time season started. In fact, it pretty much wasn’t ready until the regular season ended.
That caused chaos for the Conquistadors, who scrambled to find available gyms to practice — “Canoga Park and (occasionally) Taft really helped us out,” Lee said — and squeeze in practice time before and after school. “We practiced about 30-40 percent less than other teams,” Lee said.
As for the nonleague and league seasons, all those games would be played on the road.
That would be a daunting prospect for any team. At El Camino Real, you just added it to the list. The seven seniors on the 2015 team have played for three different coaches in the last four years — Jesse Webster, Howard Cahn and now Lee (who was an assistant here in 2014).
Lee made a promise to himself and the team. To the players, he said he was not leaving and trusting their fortunes to someone else. “The girls have had lot of turnover. The last thing I wanted was more inconsistency with the coaching staff. They were used to me from practice (the year before).”
For himself, Lee decided the season would rise or fall with this group of 13 varsity players. He was not going to add others from the junior varsity, even for the playoffs.
They were all in this together.
“This group went through so much, I didn’t want to change anything,” he said. “I told them, this season was about destiny.”
Maybe it wasn’t. ECR began the year 2-6, including a season-opening loss to Carson. And it would have been easy to understand if the season continued to spiral downward into scrums of “why us,” and “I don’t care anymore.” But then the Conquistadors won their next four matches. Their “Road Warriors” mantra became more than just talk. The team, egged on by the exuberant Lee, began to see what was possible.
It was West Valley League play, however, where the Conquistadors truly found their swag, starting with a 3-2 victory over perennial Division I contender (and four-time champion) Granada Hills. “That (win at their gym) was the first time in a long time,” Lee recalled. “It gave us confidence.”
El Camino Real went undefeated in the West Valley and got the No.2 seed. The playoff road did get rocky in the semifinal, when ECR faced defending champion Palisades of Pacific. But surviving that match, 3-2, was like clearing a final hurdle
On Saturday, there was nothing Carson (24-13) could do to keep El Camino Real from the “destiny” that Lee had forseen. Senior outside hitter Trinity Goodman and sophomore middle blocker Lauryn Anderson dominated the Colts at the net, with 14 and 11 kills respectively. Setter Isabella Barbera, a senior, chipped in with three service aces. And Carson didn’t help itself by being cited three times for pre-service alignment violations.
More telling, whenever ECR went on any kind of run to establish a lead of six points or more, Carson could never catch up.
It was fitting that Johnson scored the match point for El Camino Real with, what else, a kill shot. It was certainly a senior moment.
“It feels amazing,” Johnson said, after the team received the City trophy. “We’ve worked so hard the last four years. Honestly, even though they’ve talked about it, I never thought we’d get here.”
Johnson also loved the way they played the title match. “I feel like it’s the first time our team played 100 percent the entire match, and we pushed through.”
Barbera couldn’t stop grinning, and hugging teammates and family.
“It’s just so great,” she said. “It’s my senior year and we didn’t even have a gym. Everything led up to this. It shows how hard we fought and how hard we wanted it.”
She was asked to put the experience of the season in perspective.
“I think this whole season we learned to fight, and we learned to fight on the road. We are used to different environments, and this was a completely different environment for us. But we took over, we took control.”
As for Lee he looked like a man after 10 cups of coffee, jumping around with the championship plaque, talking at hyper speed and bouncing from interview to interview. He also made it a point to hug each player and thank them.
“This is the best group I’ve ever coached. I’ve been doing this 10 years. This is by far the best group I’ve ever coached,” Lee said.
“If you understood the four years of volleyball they’ve had to go through, as seniors to get to this point it’s just an incredible story. I told them this season was their destiny, that they were destined to win this year. I’m glad that destiny was fulfilled.”