NORWALK — It wasn't that surprising to see Laguna Beach High and Esperanza playing on the final Saturday of the CIF Southern Section Division 2 boys' volleyball tournament, seeing as how the Breakers and Aztecs were two of the divisions' premiere teams during the 2014 season.
To reach the division final, Laguna had to overcome No. 3-seeded El Segundo, and Esperanza had to knock off top-seeded San Marcos on the road in Wednesday's semifinals. Their title match clash at Cerritos College came three weeks after the teams met in a nonleague match at Laguna May 7, a contest that preceded both team's journey into the CIF playoffs. That match ended in a 3-1 victory for the Breakers.
Saturday, the showdown came down to the first team to reach 15. This time, Esperanza turned the tables.
The fourth-seeded Aztecs came back from the brink of defeat in the third set and took the second-seeded Breakers to a fifth and deciding set where the Century League champions never trailed. They won the set which gave them the match by virtue of a 25-23, 19-25, 27-25, 18-25, 15-9 victory that allowed the reigning Division 2 title champs to successfully defend their title from a year ago.
It was a scintillating match with numerous lead changes and comebacks, and plenty of drama. In the end, Esperanza, led by senior star and UCLA-bound Jake Arnitz who racked up 38 kills, found a way to pull out the win.
"It's not anything we didn't do, it was just that Esperanza played really well and did things at the end to win it," said Darren Utterback who took Laguna to the title match in his first year as head coach. "Our guys played great and I'm super-proud of them."
There were three score ties in the fifth set, the final time at 3-3. A service error by the Breakers (24-6) put the Aztecs (28-6) in front for good. It was still a one-point game (6-5) when Arnitz, a 6-foot-7 senior outside hitter, dropped a shot from the back side. Senior libero Benjamin Oxnard then dropped soft shots on consecutive sets, a kill attempt by Laguna junior opposite Jack Burgi went wide and suddenly, the Aztecs held a 10-5 advantage.
The Breakers trailed by as many as six points in the set, got to within 13-9 on a kill by senior outside hitter Jack Wyett, but Arnitz's final kill of the match was followed by a tap shot by senior setter Ryan Heller for match point.
"They're a very good team," Utterback said of the Aztecs. "They played really well in that fifth set and again, it wasn't anything our guys didn't do that lost it. They just forced us into some errors."
A tight first set saw Esperanza take a 25-23 win after a Laguna shot went long and out of bounds at set point. The set started with the Breakers being assessed a one-point infraction due to a uniform violation and later, during a tight stretch toward the end of the set, Arnitz was called for a hitting error that officials later reversed after watching a video review.
Esperanza looked as though it would get a big win in the second set. The Aztecs trailed 1-0 but reeled off six straight points, four coming on kills by Arnitz. They led 7-2 before Laguna stormed back.
An 11-3 run by the Breakers put them in the lead at 13-10. Each time the Aztecs would get to within two points of the lead, Laguna senior middle blocker Noah Blanton was there to deliver a kill down the middle. A kill by Arnitz brought the Aztecs to within 18-17 but a kill by Burgi, ace by Wyett, kill by senior opposite Jake Hexberg, and a kill down the right side by Burgi, helped the Breakers build a 22-17 lead.
A drop shot by Hexberg wrapped up a 25-19 win to even the match.
The Breakers probably want the end to the third set back. They were on the brink of taking a 2-1 lead in the match after comfortably building a 24-19 lead on a drop down the middle by Blanton. Esperanza then managed to reel off six-straight points to take the lead, doing so when Heller sent a shot off Hexberg's arm which put the Aztecs ahead, 25-24. It was their first lead since 9-8.
A kill by Wyett tied the score but Arnitz answered with a kill from the right side, then delivered an ace to finish an improbable, 27-25 comeback win.
"Volleyball's a game of runs," Utterback said. "In the second set, we were down big but won big. We had that big lead in the third set, but couldn't close it out.
"This [match] was not anything I didn't expect it to be. It was close to the end."
Laguna pulled away from a 14-13 lead to win comfortably in the fourth set to even the match. A straight down kill by Wyett, who led Laguna in kills with 21, put the Breakers ahead, 19-14. An ace by Blanton put the Breakers at match point and they took a 25-18 win when a shot by Esperanza senior middle blocker Connor Jordan sailed long.
In addition to his team-high 21 kills, Wyett had five digs, three aces and accounted for 24 of Laguna's points. Hexberg had 14 kills, a team-high four aces, six digs and scored 18 points. Blanton finished with 16 digs, had two block assists and scored 19 points, junior opposite Jack Burgi had 10 kills and sophomore middle blocker Tyler Alter had five kills and two block assists.
Senior setters Alec Wulff and Cameron dePfyffer had 37 and 23 assists, respectively.
"Both teams battled all they way but they were able to pull it out in the end," Hexberg said. "When we had that 24-19 lead in the third set, we should have closed it out.
"We played hard the entire way and we have a lot to be proud of."
Laguna was playing in its third division final in five years. The Breakers won the Division 2 title in 2010 and finished runner-up in 2011.
In addition to Saturday and the 2011 season, the program also took the runner-up position in Division 1 in 1978 and 1994, and in Division 3 in 1999.
Laguna has won six Southern Section titles: 2010 (Division 2) and in Division 1 in 1975-77-81-82-83.
The Breakers' season isn't over. They will begin the CIF Southern California Regional Tournament at 7 p.m. Tuesday and will play in Division 3. Regional semifinal matches are at 7 p.m. Thursday, and the Division 3 regional final is May 31 at Cerritos College.