May 18, 2024

Mater Dei and Mira Costa have alternated the No. 1 spot in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 girls’ volleyball rankings since the season started, but lurking right behind them in the weekly top 10 poll is Huntington Beach, which clinched the Surf League title Thursday with its four-set win at Newport Beach.

The Oilers (27-6) are as battle tested as any team in the Southland and have yet to lose a best-of-five match. Only one Southern Section opponent has managed to beat them — Mira Costa won a quarterfinals matchup at the Durango Classic in Las Vegas. They suffered a close defeat to San Diego Cathedral in the Dave Mohs Tournament semifinals and their other four losses are to teams from out of state — Cornerstone Christian and Prestonwood Christian from Texas and Iolani and Punahou from Hawaii.

Huntington Beach has won five boys’ section titles and coach Craig Pazanti would like to pilot his alma mater to its first girls’ championship since 1996 in honor of his mentor, Rocky Ciarelli, who died from a heart attack while playing golf at Mile Square Park in February at age 66. He and his brother Tony — a longtime throws coach in track and field — will be inducted into the Southern Section Hall of Fame at an 11:30 a.m. luncheon Oct. 18 at The Grand in Long Beach.

Huntington Beach junior opposite hitter Taylor Ponchak delivers a kill between two Los Alamitos blockers.

Junior opposite hitter Taylor Ponchak delivers one of her 11 kills in the Oilers’ victory at league rival Los Alamitos.

(Steve Galluzzo / For The Times)

Rocky Ciarelli played on Huntington Beach’s first volleyball team in 1972 and started his coaching career across town at Edison in 1982. He piloted Huntington Beach from 1985 through 2008, then ended his 32-year prep coaching run at Newport Harbor from 2015 to 2019.

“My first year playing for him was 1986,” Pazanti recalls. “I was the setter and defensive specialist. There was no libero in those days and we were still using side-out scoring so matches could go on forever. We’d be 45 minutes in and the score would be 3-3 in the first game.”

Pazanti was on Ciarelli’s staff when the Oilers won back-to-back boys’ titles in 1993-94. Pazanti took the reins of the girls’ program in 2008 and the boys’ program in 2009, guiding the boys to three straight Southern Section Division 1 crowns from 2013 to 2015. He won three in a row from 2001 to 2003 as coach of the Mater Dei girls’ program, but nothing would be sweeter than winning a girls’ title at his alma mater. He got the girls to the section finals in his first season and again in 2021, and this might be the group that finishes the job.

“The most important thing I learned from Rocky as both a player and coach is preparation,” Pazanti said. “His teams were always the most prepared. Nothing ever shocked him from his opponents. I believe that’s what made him so successful. He was ready for anything and always prepping for his opponent’s counter. He was playing chess while others were playing checkers.”

Huntington Beach is certainly prepared to make a deep postseason run in 2023. The Oilers entered three of the toughest national tournaments around, taking fifth in the Ann Kang Invitational in Hawaii in August, third at the Dave Mohs Tournament in Orange County in early September and seventh at Durango two weeks later, when sophomore outside hitter Addison Williams made the all-tournament team.

The squad’s mettle was tested Oct. 3 when the Oilers lost the first two sets at league rival Los Alamitos before roaring back to win behind 53 assists from senior setter Dani Sparks, 23 kills from senior outside hitter Haylee LaFontaine and 11 kills each from Taylor Ponchak and Kylie Leopard.

Huntington Breach's Kylie Leopard delivers one of her 11 kills in the Oilers’ five-set victory at rival Los Alamitos.

Senior middle blocker Kylie Leopard delivers one of her 11 kills in Huntington Beach’s five-set victory at rival Los Alamitos.

(Steve Galluzzo / For The Times)

“One set at a time … that was the mind-set,” said LaFontaine, who pounded the match-winning kill. “Our setter had all three options and it happened to come my way. We really came together at the start of the season and we love playing on the road. Especially when we travel to the tournaments because we get to go up against teams we don’t normally get to play.”

LaFontaine and Sparks are both committed to play beach volleyball for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Ponchak, a junior, has committed early to play beach at Stanford. Seniors Meghan Freck and Lola Fernsten are committed to play beach at UC Davis while senior opposite Lindsay Harris is committed to play indoor at Alabama State and junior libero Olivia Foye is an early commit to play on the indoor team at Princeton.

“We like the tournaments because we get to play different teams,” said Sparks. “We have a really close-knit team. We all hang out after school, go to the beach and eat together after practices. So when we get behind like we did against Los Alamitos we don’t panic, we know we can come back.”

Pazanti, who coached the boys’ program to a national-record 121 straight victories from 2013 to 2016, believes this is perhaps his most talented girls’ team at Huntington Beach — the “core five” having played together since they arrived on campus.

Dani Sparks (3) and teammates Amika Swanson, Haylee LaFontaine and Estela Escura celebrate their victory at Los Alamitos.

Dani Sparks (3) and teammates Amika Swanson, Haylee LaFontaine and Estela Escura celebrate their victory at Los Alamitos.

(Steve Galluzzo / For The Times)

“Our seniors are fantastic,” Pazanti said. “Dani Sparks, Haylee LaFontaine and Kylie Leopard all lost their freshman year to COVID, but they would’ve been starters and they along with Olivia Foye and Taylor, who arrived the next year, have been starters the last three years.”

In addition to two league wins against Los Alamitos, currently ranked fifth in the Southern Section poll, Huntington Beach has victories over No. 4 Sierra Canyon, No. 7 Palos Verdes, No. 13 Santa Margarita and No. 15 Edison.

“Even though it’s a public school we’re very fortunate to be a beach community and many of these kids start playing at a young age,” said Pazanti. “Huntington Beach High has a strong volleyball tradition and because of that we are starting to get second- and sometimes third-generation volleyball families. Still … we do have some limitations that some of the private schools don’t.”

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