The Southern California boys high school volleyball scene is no joke.
Hands down, it’s the toughest conglomeration of elite teams and players in the nation — virtually every year.
“Being in Southern California, we’re definitely playing good teams all year,” recently retired Newport Harbor coach Rocky Ciarelli said. “It’s quite an accomplishment when you win CIF.”
And that’s exactly what Ciarelli’s Sailors did this spring, winning not only the CIF Southern Section Division I title, but taking the CIF Southern California Division I regional crown as well. The regional is equivalent to a state title.
Not coincidentally Newport Harbor, which finished 39-1 on the season, is the 2019 VolleyballMag.com boys national high school team of the year.
“A lot of it was we played error-free ball,” said Ciarelli, who is retiring after a 32-year career. “It was good basics and fundamentals. We didn’t make many mistakes out there. Our setter set the ball and we were pretty hard to defend. Anybody could get set. We passed and blocked and served well. We were an all-around good volleyball team.”
Newport Harbor beat perennial Southern California heavyweights Loyola (in the semifinals) and Mira Costa out of Manhattan Beach (in the final) to win the CIF Southern Section crown, and then hit the repeat button with wins over those same two foes (Loyola in the semifinals and Mira Costa in the final) to secure the regional title in front of its home Harbor fans.
The Sailors had a little something to prove this year after being jettisoned in the Southern Section finals by city rival Corona del Mar and again by CdM in the Southern California regionals.
“After losing last year we said something had to change,” said Sailors senior setter and co-captain Joe Karlous, who will play at Pepperdine next season. “The only thing we needed to change was the chemistry. We had to be close and we had to be brothers at the end of the day. This year, it definitely was the camaraderie.
“We had a great coach and some intense practices and we had fans that supported us and came to games no matter how far away they were. That helped us get through those tough matches.”
Senior outside hitter and co-captain Dayne Chalmers (headed to UC Santa Barbara) agreed the team put up a unified front that had one mission to accomplish.
“We were good because all the guys invested in a common goal,” he said. “We wanted to win CIF and it was just a matter of how much work we were willing to put into it. When we stepped on the court, you knew the guy next to you was invested as much if not more than you. That was a big part of our success.
“We played a lot of tough teams throughout the season and as we played more and more, the chemistry with these guys started clicking more and more. You could feel each other’s presence out there. You knew where someone was going to be even before the ball got there.”
Chalmers was named the CIF Southern Section Division I player of the year and also took Orange County player of the year honors from the Orange County Register. He was joined on the all-CIF SS team by Karlous and Jack Higgs. Ciarelli earned CIF SS Division I coach of the year accolades.
Newport Harbor’s lone loss during the regular season was to CdM. It beat Mira Costa (rated in the top five nationally at the end of the season by one national statistical service) four times and scored the two playoffs wins against Loyola, also ranked in the top 10 nationally, along with CdM and Palisades, which Newport beat in the Best of the West tournament.
“We were a good, steady team,” Ciarelli said. “Teams gave us trouble for a while, but eventually with us, we don’t make mistakes and that made it hard for teams to beat us.”
Ciarelli said he was fortunate to coach a team filled with quality kids on and off the court.
“The team GPA was like 3.5,” he said. “They were great in the classroom and they worked hard in the weight room and in practice. This was kind of a dream team, really.”
As for Ciarelli, he was given quite a retirement gift. It was his third CIF Southern Section title, he won two at Huntington Beach, and his first Southern California regional crown. He coached five years at Newport Harbor after previous stops at Edison in Huntington Beach and Huntington Beach High. Overall, his career spanned 32 years.
“People say kids are different today,” Ciarelli said. “I disagree. I had a great group of kids. The other thing that bears mentioning is these are all Newport Beach kids. We had no kids transfer in. They came up through the Newport-Mesa school district. That’s a special thing.”
Chalmers added: “This is probably the best present we could have given him. Rocky did a good job. He let us play. He knows the best times when to step in as a coach and when to let us play.”
“It was awesome that we were able to send him off with a bang,” Karlous said.
Thursday: Our national coach of the year