Torrey Pines coach Brennan Dean sat stoically on the bench with his arms and leggs crossed for much of Saturday’s California Open Division state final against Nor Cal’s Marin Catholic, occasionally standing up to give instruction.
With a victory, Torrey Pines would cement its case for being VolleyballMag.com’s national girls volleyball high school champion.
Last weekend, it was Benet Academy making its claim for the top spot in the country by dismissing Marist in the semifinals en route to capturing the Illinois Class 4A state championships and finishing 41-1. The Redwings’ only setback came to Marist, a school Benet defeated twice, including in the ultimate showdown in the state semis.
However, downing Marin Catholic would not only give Torrey Pines its first state girls volleyball championship, it would also leave the Falcons with an impressive lineup of victories that is impossible to ignore despite Torrey Pines (39-2) losing twice to La Costa Canyon and Vista Murrieta. Vista Murrieta claimed the California Division 1 title Friday night, while Torrey Pines won the second meeting over LCC to avenge the earlier loss.
Once Marin Catholic’s serve sailed long, the 25-11, 25-23, 25-14 sweep was official. Dean rushed the court as Torrey Pines players and coaching staff broke out in a dogpile on the 10-foot line celebrating a season that left the Falcons looking down on everyone else.
Examining what Torrey Pines did in 2019, there is no way to deny the San Diego school VolleyballMag.com’s final No. 1 ranking.
Marin Catholic (35-4) — which reached the semifinals of the Durango Fall Classic in Las Vegas — beating Torrey Pines would have prevented Torrey Pines from ending on top but the Falcons were not going to be denied. Benet Academy wasn’t able to travel and that unfortunately didn’t allow the Redwings to stack up the caliber of victories Torrey Pines did.
Even though Torrey Pines hit the road just once itself – going to Durango and losing to Vista Murrieta in the challenge play-in match to make the quarterfinals – the strength of schedule speaks for itself. Torrey Pines went 3-0 against Cathedral Catholic, which took first place at Durango, and 1-0 against each Marymount, Redondo Union, Mater Dei and Marin Catholic. The latter proved to be the best in Nor Cal. Marymount finished first at the Nike TOC in Phoenix, another prestigious national tournament featuring a strong field like Durango. Redondo Union claimed the CIF Southern Section Division 1 title by beating Mater Dei, which owns a victory over Kentucky state champion Assumption. Torrey Pines also beat Hawai’i Division 1 state champion Kamehameha, Arizona state quarterfinalist Hamilton, and Episcopal of Texas, which claimed Houston’s private school tournament.
“I think we have a real strong argument,” Dean said of the national-championship picture.
As the match Saturday night was nearing its conclusion Dean was sitting on the bench with his hands on his heads. He said he was thinking, “I can’t believe we are about to do this. It feels real good,” he said of winning not only the first state title for the program but claiming the national championship along with it.
Torrey Pines was taking nothing for granted when it came to Marin Catholic.
In fact, this match would have been mostly an afterthought had Padua Franciscan closed out its season by winning the Ohio Division 1 state title and putting together a perfect season with it weeks ago. With it, Padua would’ve built a stronger case, even with Torrey Pines winning a state championship of its own. Yet, when Padua stumbled in the state final against St. Francis De Sales, it opened the door for a handful of teams.
Torrey Pines was one of them.
Beating Marymount and Mater Dei to reach the state final, it could all unravel with an upset loss to Marin Catholic. The Wildcats are young, starting four sophomores but do have 6-5 outside Kari Geissberger (11 kills). If she could get the ball over and over in her spots, she could do damage to a Torrey Pines squad that relies on its serving, passing and tough defense to win.
Torrey Pines isn’t going to overpower anyone but their skill from the service line caused problems for younger Marin Catholic serve receivers.
Marin Catholic showed what it could do in set two when it took better care of the ball, but it was sandwiched in between two frames where Torrey Pines dominated with its style of play. The Falcons had 11 aces total.
“All their seniors played unbelievably,” Marin Catholic coach Jake Spain said of the opposition. “They served and passed at a really, really high level. It looked like a bunch of seniors serving and passing. I think our sophomores in serve receive hung tough but they were playing at such a high level. We start two seniors and volleyball is such a really high emotional game that you learn over time. Our program has had stepping stones to get to this point. Kudos to Torrey Pines. I couldn’t be prouder of us for the season we have had.”
Marin Catholic was leading 19-16 in Game 2 but three points later Delaynie Maple’s ace tied it at 19 all for Torrey Pines. Marin didn’t lead the rest of the set, instead tying the score at 22 all after winning the longest rally of the match.
However, Torrey Pines went up 24-22 on Carly Diehl’s dump winner then closed it out two players later when Trinity Durfee tooled the block on a slide. Marin appeared to put the tough loss out of mind by grabbing a 2-0 lead to start Game 3. But Torrey Pines came on quickly, going up 6-2 and eventually building a 20-10 margin for the second time in the match. Maple led the way with 10 kills. Maya Satchell added 8, while Diehl tallied 24 assists.
“Set two was a little sketchy,” Dean said. “If we lose that one and it’s 1-1, who knows? (Marin) could’ve gotten hot. It would have been a coin flip.”
This was Torrey Pines’ fourth time appearing in a state final, first since 2001.
Dean took over in 2011 and the Falcons have reached the state playoffs every year. Put another way, it’s been eight straight years of state heartbreak. Most of them have come in what’s supposed to be the advantage of playing at home. Six of the eight exits have come at Torrey Pines, including getting knocked out last year in three deuce sets by Marymount in the quarterfinals.
By then, Dean was all too familiar with the season ending like that. His first year, Torrey Pines lost at home in a five-set decision 19-17 to Corona del Mar in the first round of state. Torrey Pines was the preseason No. 1 team in the nation in 2012 but suffered another gut-wrenching defeat in state. Redondo Union came to town and swept Torrey Pines in the quarterfinals that season.
The two times Torrey Pines lost on the road weren’t as bad. They came in 2013 at Mater Dei and 2016 at Santa Margarita. Neither time the Falcons were the favorites.
That’s the thing about playing at home in the California state playoffs. The better teams usually earns the right to host. So in many cases, Torrey Pines has been considered the favorite only to watch the visiting team celebrating after the last point.
In 2014, Torrey Pines was the No. 2 overall seed but was upset in the first round at home by Santiago, which prevailed in five sets. The following season, Torrey Pines had just one loss – to Assumption at Durango – when it welcomed Redondo for a state quarterfinal clash. Redondo took that one in four games. Then in 2017, Torrey Pines lost a five-set outcome at home to Mater Dei. In a way that hurt the most. That one came in the state semifinals, the farthest the Falcons had made it with Dean.
Entering 2019, there was no mention of state. It’s been that way for a few seasons at Torrey Pines.
“We never talk about it,” Dean said. “We never once talked about it. We never once talked about winning CIF. The only reference in our gym is about improvement and every day trying to learn about each other and supporting each other. We talked a lot about fear, why we have it and how to handle it.”
The year used to begin with the letters L-C-S. It stood for league, CIF, state. In other words, let’s win league, then CIF, then state. Even when Dean stopped that a few years back the tough losses continued.
“The major shift this year was doing a spotlight,” he said. “Every other day we would talk about one person and why we all appreciated this person. It couldn’t be anything about volleyball. Without joy and happiness it’s hard to be successful. There is so much negative stuff we can focus on we wanted to make sure to focus on the positive stuff.
“We learned to appreciate things about each other in life and not related to volleyball at all. When we made errors I think it helped because we don’t lose value in that person. We still love and appreciate them for who they are. I don’t think we were as concerned about making errors and weren’t worried about making mistakes.”
The way players danced during warmups. Or laughed with each other between sets. There was what Dean called a lightness to his team. One of the few times Dean stood up Saturday during the match he joked with his team about how much he loves to see them play defense.
“The word we use is light,” he said. “We don’t take it too seriously. If you do, if you make it bigger than it is, you play differently.”
After defeating Cathedral Catholic for the third time and winning the CIF San Diego Section championship with it, Torrey Pines drew the top seed for state. It was then Dean allowed himself to really think about state. He knew the teams he would need to go through. And maybe playing at home wasn’t the comfort it was supposed to be given past history. However, he did like how his team was playing, the clean performance in a sweep of Cathedral.
“It’s rare for teams to go on big runs against us,” Dean said. “We bounce back quickly. We are more balanced. We didn’t have that stud. We don’t have that big-time outside. No one is 6-3. They are all really hard working and all appreciate each other. We have a great staff that holds the players to high standards. It’s an absolute honor to coach this group.”