Has there been a more unexpected City champion than Kennedy High?
The Golden Cougars boys’ volleyball team posted one of the worst regular season records in memory, losing their first 16 matches and going on to a 4-23 overall regular season record — with three of those wins coming in Valley Mission League play.
They somehow got into the Division III playoffs as a seventh seed. And there they were on Saturday, May 20, finishing off a 4-0 playoff run by defeating Hollywood — top seed — in four sets at Roybal Learning Center in downtown Los Angeles to become the D-III champion.
It was the second ever boys’ volleyball title won by Kennedy. The other was the Invitational Championship the Cougars won in 1999.
“I don’t know if I want to cry or jump around,” said middle blocker Anthony Simone, after he drove the last of his nine kills past the Sheiks’ defense to wrap up the Cougars’ 25-17, 14-25, 25-15 and 25-21 victory. “It’s just a great feeling.”
Tears of joy were shed by Coach John Maluyo after he accepted the championship plaque and trophy. Maluyo, in his second season at Kennedy, has been on a personal mission to rebuild the program — which last had a winning record in 2011 (11-9) — from the ground up. But even he was not expecting this, at least not yet.
How could he? Not after a 2-14 season in 2016. And certainly not initially this year when the Cougars, whose season began on Feb. 23, did not win a match until beating Reseda in league on March 27.
Maluyo had placed his team in high level competitions like the Venice Varsity Tournament in part to have them see and understand how top-ranked teams played the game. But even though the Cougars were losing primarily to Division I and II teams, the Cougars kept losing and some players were quitting. Maluyo — who was also waiting for Kennedy’s basketball season to end to add bodies like the 6-6 Simone to the roster — admitted to some soul-searching.
“After every game I had a meeting with the group and asked if they had met the goals they set before the game,” said Maluyo, who pleads guilty to being both intense and emotional. “We looked at the fundamental parts: stay disciplined, do your job, and as long as you know what you do and don’t take over someone else’s job, things will work out.
“It was long season. All ups and downs. Maybe (in the beginning) the kids weren’t buying what I was trying to sell and I wondered, ‘how do I change things.’”
Finally getting that win against Reseda provided a collective sigh of relief. The Cougars would beat Reseda and also Panorama in league, and Northridge Academy for their lone nonleague victory. Maluyo had to hope that was enough plus their strength of schedule, to somehow get in the playoffs.
“I told them all we needed was a ticket in the dance and I believe in what we have,” the coach said.
The Cougars drew undefeated Triumph Charter, seeded 10th in the first round, which hadn’t lost a set all season. And when the Jaguars won the opening game 25-20, it seemed like business as usual. But then the unthinkable happened; Kennedy won the next three games 25-9, 28-26 and 25-9.
“We lost the first set, but then calmed downed and made some adjustments, and played our game — hard defense and then doing their job,” Maluyo said. “When they went [ahead of] Triumph, the lights came on.”
By now all the preachings and pleadings of Maluyo throughout the season had become part of the team DNA. “Our coach pushes us every day in practice to keep on going,” Simone said. “We ran so much, had practices at night and in the morning. But once we got the call we were in the playoffs, it was the opportunity to go all out and leave everything out there on the court. We honestly played every game like it was our last.”
“We were always there for each other,” added sophomore middle blocker Marvin Giron. “We’d pick each other up every time we dropped the ball. We picked each other up each time we lost a point.”
The Cougars roared past Valley Academy of Arts & Sciences and Wilson High of Los Angeles in the quarterfinals and semifinals. The last obstacle was Hollywood, which had its own wonderful storyline, having bounced back from a 1-12 season in 2016 to go 17-4 overall and finish second in the Central League under new coach Beverly Kilpatrick. The Cougars were expecting the same reaction from the Sheiks they got from everybody else.
“We felt like everybody was counting us out, especially when they saw our record coming in,” Simone said.
Kennedy played spiritedly in winning the first game, but Hollywood looked like a top seed in controlling the second game. The Sheiks had an even bigger player than Simone as a middle blocker — Aleksander Berg, who measures 6-8. Berg was dominating the middle of the court and at the net. The bulk of his 12 kills and two of his three blocks came in the second game.
As the teams huddled before the start of Game Three, Maluyo played one final psychological card.
“I gave the ‘mistake’ speech. Because it was our mistakes that led to Hollywood winning, either hitting our serves into the net or hitting balls out of bounds. And [Berg] was getting good sets to do damage,” the coach said.
“In between the games we went over our mistakes and talked again about not making them. The third game was key, because if we won then the onus was on them, the favorite, to win two.”
Armed with a renewed sense of purpose, the Cougars went out and won Games 3 and 4 to win the title.
“It was our mindset,” said Giron, who contributed a team-high 10 kills. “Every time we lost a point we always thought we’d get the next one.”
In doing so the Cougars created a legend that will last long past their graduations.