With just three matches and a tournament remaining in the regular season, the La Costa Canyon boys volleyball team sports a 16-5 record, is undefeated in Avocado League West play, ranked No. 2 in the section according to the latest Union-Tribune poll and 11th in the state by MaxPreps, making it a legitimate contender for the 2018 CIF Open Division Championship by any measure.
The Mavericks have history on their side as well, having collected 14 CIF titles (the last coming in 2015), the last 12 under the tutelage of current Head Coach Mark Brubaker. Yes, they did lose last year’s championship final, 3-2, to La Jolla (also top-ranked at this point of the 2018 season) but had every chance to win that encounter and seem to have the necessary tools to potentially take the last step this time around. Still, the jury remains out on the Mavs—and last Friday’s, 3-1, road victory over a solid but unspectacular Cathedral Catholic squad laid those uncertainties out clearly.
LCC won the first two sets but struggled in both, then dropped the third by two points before rebounding to clinch the match 25-21. Two days prior to the that triumph, when asked about the keys to winning at the high school level, Brubaker spoke plainly saying, “Consistency wins. Just being able to be consistent and maintain your level of play over the course of the match is the most important thing.”
Against Cathedral, the Mavericks produced some truly top flight runs, stretches that had fans “oohing and aahing,” their bench falling down in mock amazement and the host Dons disheartened with a “what are we supposed to do about that?” look on their faces. One, 10-1, blitz that turned a tight second set into an apparent runaway showcased LCC at its finest—scoring points in bunches via standard outside sets, feeds to the middle, back row blasts, stuff blocks, aces, you name it—all while making big plays on defense and getting contributions from every player on the floor.
“When you have talented players, all playing together, it’s great to see and fun to watch,” said Brubaker, who took over the head coaching reins at LCC in 2000.
Then there’s the other side of the coin. Inexplicable lapses, sometimes lengthy, where unforced errors allow lesser opponents to stay in games seemingly out of reach. And as the end of the season approaches, a big question still looms—can any team, no matter how talented win a series of matches against good teams, like LCC would be facing in the CIF Playoffs, while operating in this fashion.
“It would be very tough to play up-and-down, like we did at Cathedral, against a good team or set of teams and expect to win every time,” said Brubaker, who grew up in volleyball crazy Hermosa Beach and also teaches (biology & environmental science) at LCC. “Cathedral gave us some breaks that allowed us to regroup. As the competition gets tougher, you’re not going to get those breaks.
“Working as a team is always a bit of a process, something that doesn’t necessarily happen immediately. Watch the better teams at the high school level and they have a group of guys that just get along, like playing together and talk to each other—that’s sometimes hard when you have kids who are at different skill levels, in different grades and may not have much interaction outside of volleyball
“That communication and focus is something we’re going to continue to work on in practice. With a match against a tough Sage Creek (No. 3) team coming up and the Redondo Beach Varsity Classic Tournament, where we’ll see multiple good teams, we’ll have opportunities to concentrate on keeping our focus through whole matches and a tournament. It should be a good barometer of where we are for CIF.”
Brubaker has three starters back from the 2017 team—senior outside hitter Camden Gianni, 6-foot-7 senior middle blocker Colin Lovejoy and junior libero Lance Muret—as well as junior outside hitter Nick Vanags who has gone from sophomore reserve to the starting lineup. At 6-4, the athletic Gianni, who transferred to LCC from Santa Fe Christian as a junior, is the biggest gun in the Mavs’ arsenal. With just under 300 kills already this season, he’s far-and-away LCC’s top offensive producer statistically. A big jumper with power and sneaky quickness who can hit the high ball outside or come out of the back row with equal effectiveness, Gianni is also the man junior setter Ayden Cole looks for when the Mavericks have to have a point.
“Camden is one of the best overall players in San Diego and effects matches on both sides of the net,” said Brubaker. “From our side, he’s that ‘rock.’ He doesn’t go way up or down emotionally. He’s got a very high volleyball IQ and keeps that stability at all times, allowing us to ride out stretches when we might not be playing that well.
“From the other side, he’s a weapon and everyone knows he’s a weapon. A lot of times you can see that our opponents are worrying so much about him that it opens up our middles and other hitters.” Gianni is also a steady passer, possesses a heavy jump serve that is usually reliable for a few quick points a match and has a perspective on the ’18 squad similar to his coach’s.
“I’m one of our team captains this year and like being a leader but different teams require different styles,” says Gianni. “I am a leader on our club team but there everyone has played together for a long time and instinctively knows what to do on the court.
“In high school, teams switch lineups more often and the expectancy is to talk more on the court. I’m not a rah-rah type so it’s been a completely different role but I’m learning and getting better at keeping everyone engaged. I thought the Cathedral match was a great eye-opener to how good we can be. We’re coming around.”
As La Costa Canyon looks to close out a perfect Avocado West season and move on to the CIF Open Division tournament, Gianni talked with the Encinitas Advocate about the team’s hopes in the post-season, what his teammates bring to the squad and what’s on tap after graduation.
Q—How tough was it to be so close last season and not get the CIF Championship?
GIANNI—It was kind of a weird feeling. Early in the season, we knew we were capable of doing great things but it seemed like things kind of moved forward really fast and all of a sudden we were in the championship game. That was something that maybe we weren’t totally ready for, got there and didn’t know what to expect.
I don’t think our team doubted that we could win but we might not have been 100 percent confident. It was a pretty exciting fight and a heartbreaker to lose. It would have been nice to get that last win but I think we accomplished more than we thought we could.
Q—La Jolla is currently ranked No. 1 in the section. Would you like another shot at them?
GIANNI—It’s still too early to think about it but I would love to play them again. If that happens, I feel like we’ll know them better and after last year’s experience be ready for the moment.
Q—What differences do you see between this year and last year’s team?
GIANNI—We had a big senior class last year (6 or 7) and only four this year and that’s been a big change. We have some older guys, but our entire bench is younger players and first-year varsity players. Even at this point of the season, I don’t think everyone is totally sure exactly where they fit. That seems to get better every week, every match so I’d say we’re still improving and have a lot of upside.
Q—Did you play any other sports when you were younger, when did you get started in volleyball and what’s made it your primary sport?
GIANNI—When I was younger, I was a football and baseball guy. I started playing volleyball in sixth grade and just played games here and there at school through eighth grade. When I went to Santa Fe Christian, I decided to play football and volleyball. During my sophomore year, I broke my back playing football which led to two decisions.
One was to invest all my sports efforts into volleyball. I needed to enjoy and want to compete every day at whatever I was doing. I came to the conclusion that football wasn’t for me and I had a gift for volleyball.
The second decision was to transfer to La Costa Canyon which has turned out well. It’s a completely different environment from small, private school to big, public school. There are so many more people to interact with and no matter what your interests are, you can find people to interact with who are similar. The volleyball is really enjoyable, everyone gets along, we’re doing well and just loving life.
Q—How passionate and competitive do you consider yourself on the court?
GIANNI—Passionate? I’m 100 percent all the time. I love going to practice every single day, love getting better and making strides as a team. Competitively, it’s the same thing. I have a pretty even temperament on the court and don’t like talking about my skills—I’d rather just play the game. I expect a lot from myself and it’s important to me that I play up to those expectations and not worry about what others might think.
Q—What gives you the most satisfaction on a volleyball court?
GIANNI—There are a lot of things but I love crushing the ball, particularly on a back row attack. I also like making a perfect pass on a tough serve.
Q—What can you tell us about your LCC teammates?
GIANNI—Nick Vanags, our junior outside hitter, has the most intensity and brings all the energy on the court. He gets everyone fired up which is usually a plus. Colin’s (Lovejoy) a middle blocker who is very confident in himself and his abilities and always wants the ball no matter what the situation. Those are great attributes. I’ve seen a lot of middles are usually looking for only perfect sets. He wants everything.
Ayden (Cole), our setter, is a quiet leader and, like me, tends to be quiet until you get to know him. He’s always communicating on the court, though, trying to figure out how he can do things better for the hitters. Lance (Muret) is a libero and our other team captain. He has a beach volleyball background, is a great leader and expects a lot from himself and others.
Logan Cox is our other middle. He’s new to the varsity this year and I’m still trying to figure out what he’s like but I know he’s pretty big, brings a lot of energy and communicates pretty well. Jake Robbins is a senior outside hitter and really a funny guy who has improved his passing and hitting this year. At crucial moments, he always seems to make big plays. I also have to mention Jack Patrick who is a senior and the loudest bench player I’ve ever known. He’s a great part of our team.
Q—What does Coach Mark Brubaker bring to the team and how has he helped your game?
GIANNI—He expects a lot out of us which is what you want from a coach. He’s always pushing us to do everything we need to in order to be better in both games and practice. He’s helped me improve my hitting efficiency. I can jump pretty high and have a tendency to swing down on blocks, trying to make a big play. He’s gotten me to swing deeper which increases my chances of scoring every time.
Q—Aside from the sports you’ve played (volleyball, football, baseball) is there another sport you think you might be pretty good at? What’s a sport you might not do as well at?
GIANNI—I would probably say I could be successful at basketball. I played some when I was younger but I was always a football-baseball guy and never really committed to a winter sport. My size and jumping fits well.
Lacrosse is a sport I’d probably have trouble with. I have a lot of friends who love it and I can’t understand why. It is a contact sport but I’m not very good at throwing a ball without being able to touch it.
Q—What is something interesting that nobody on your team knows about you?
GIANNI—I don’t think my teammates know that I played quarterback on the football team at Santa Fe Christian. As the QB, you’re kind of the team orchestrator. Volleyball is a mental sport so that transition was pretty easy. I never make impulsive decisions which also helps in volleyball.
Q—What do you like to do in your free time?
GIANNI—I like hanging out at the beach with my friends and going to Six Flags. I also have an uncle who lives in Hawaii and he invites me out once or twice a year, which is great.
Family is also very important to me. I have a really great family (one younger brother and one younger sister) that I like to be around. I feel loved and give the same back.
Q—What do you have planned after graduation from LCC?
GIANNI—I’m going to go to Grand Canyon University and play volleyball there. I had a number of opportunities, volleyball-wise, and after looking at the more appealing options, I felt that GCU would be the best overall. I think it will be similar to Santa Fe Christian since it has a Christian orientation. SFC was a small, close knit community. GCU is a lot bigger school but still had the close knit feel.
On the academic side, I will be a business management major with a goal of eventually getting into commercial real estate, architecture or something along those lines. I don’t want to be behind a desk, I want to be active in a job.
As far as volleyball, it’s a Division I program with great athletes and great commits coming in. One of the guys I played with last summer, Tanner Petchul, is going there now so I’ll have a connection on the team right away.