M. Terry / SFVS

Congratulating The Victors — The El Camino Real Charter boys’ volleyball team applauds the championship effort by Palisades High in the Open Division final.

Greatness is greatness. It may come in a single momentary burst — “what a great game” — or a sustained period of superiority. You may not immediately recognize greatness when you first see it. But you’ll eventually understand it for what it is.

The boys’ volleyball teams from El Camino Real Charter (ECR) and Verdugo Hills ran into greatness at the Los Angeles City Section championships held at Birmingham Community Charter High School on May 11. ECR was kept from winning the Open Division title by Palisades Charter High of Pacific, and Jordan High of Los Angeles denied Verdugo Hills the Division II title. Both winners won their titles in four sets. There was nothing accidental or controversial about either title won. Both were succinct and decisive.

And both were marked by some definition of greatness.

For Palisades, which won a third consecutive City title (16th overall in school history) and repeated as the Open Division champion, beating El Camino Real by scores of 23-25, 25-18, 25-20 and 25-14 put an exclamation point on what has been a season for the ages. 

Only a pair of nonleague tournament losses, to Newport Harbor (Best of the West) on March 9 and Santa Barbara (Karch Kiraly TOC) on April 13, stand between the Dolphins (41-2) and perfection. They have won their last 12 matches since the Santa Barbara defeat, and lost one game during that stretch — to the Conquistadors grabbed on Saturday, making them the first City section team to win a game this season against the Dolphins.

El Camino Real (33-9-1), seeded second and — like Palisades — senior-heavy, certainly respected the Dolphins but were not in awe of them. Like with many youth, prep and club sports, the volleyball world is a close-knit one. Many of the players have seen each other on the same or opposite club teams growing up. By high school, they know each other’s talents in depth.

Which is why the Conquistadors were the least shocked people in the gym when they won the first set. The Dolphins were struggling  with their serves, often sending them out of bounds, and ECR frontline players Brandon Botdorf and Trevor Jackson were having some early success at blocking Palisades’ kill shot attempts at the net.

But the Dolphins found their rhythm, then began driving their serves with speed and power deep into the Conquistador’s side of the court to set up easy points, and rarely let El Camino Real develop any momentum from its own serves. The most telling difference between the teams came in the fourth set when Palisades blew out to an 11-1 lead, taking the air — and any hopes the Conquistadors still had of an upset — out of the room. 

Akhil Tangutar led Palisades with 18 kills and five aces, but he had more than enough help from Owen Loncar and Miles Partain, who each had seven kills.

“We didn’t settle in the way we wanted to early on, but a lot of that credit goes to El Camino Real,” Dolphins Coach Carlos Gray said. “They’ve seen us enough, they knew what we wanted to do, and they took a lot of those things away. It took us a while to adjust.”

As the Open Division’s top seed, Palisades did what it was expected to do by winning. But sometimes winning can be harder when everyone expects it from you. Maybe that’s why there were no grand demonstrations of joy by the Dolphins after match point. They shook hands with each other and, once the medals were handed out and pictures with the championship trophy were taken, they commenced doing their postgame stretching.

“I’ve seen these (Palisades) players since they were freshmen,” El Camino Real Coach Alyssa Lee said. “Now they’re all seniors, they play a little ‘cleaner’ and more aggressive, and are still just as good.

“The first game we kind of exploited their errors. The second, third and fourth sets, they got cleaner, and you can tell by the scores it got a little bit easier for them, because they were making fewer errors and we weren’t forcing enough kills on our end.”

When asked what he’ll remember about this team — with five of his nine headed to Division I or II universities this fall, and one junior already committed to a D-I school — Gray smiled.

“This group has probably been the most special group I’ve had in high school coaching. I’ve never had this many guys going on to the [university] level. It’s a testament to how hard they worked. They trusted me with adjustments, and it’s just been amazing.”  

Jordan hasn’t played as many matches as Palisades this season. But, through Saturday, the Bulldogs won every one they’ve been in (17-0) so far in 2019.

That still only got Jordan a third seed when the Division II playoffs began. The Dons (23-8) were the top seed, and were led by a terrific senior in Klayton Nelson, an outside hitter. And he looked dominant early, racking up 10 kills in Verdugo Hills first set victory. Nelson would finish the match with 23 kills.

Jordan, however, had two dominant players on the floor — outside hitter Elijah Conorquie, a senior, and middle blocker Frances Cheeks, also a senior. Their levels of skill and athleticism soon swayed the contest in favor of the Bulldogs. It was particularly evident in the pivotal third set, when Conorquie scored four of Jordan’s last five points, and turned a 23-20 Dons lead into a 25-23 Bulldogs victory.

Cheeks had 27 kills, and Conorquie had 24 kills, for Jordan.

Those defeats meant that only one Valley area team would win a championship this day. Vaughn International Studies Academy defeated East Valley High in four sets to win the boys’ Division III title. 

The 2019 seasons for ECR and Verdugo Hills ended on May 11. It may not have been the ending either the Conquistadors or Dons wanted.

But both teams can say it took greatness from their opponents to keep them from continuing on.