Corsairs Claim Volleyball Victory

After the previous week's harrowing road trips saw Santa Monica College return home with three losses to even their season record at 4-4, Friday night's competition versus the Santa Barbara City College Vaqueros was a critical gut-check for the visiting Corsairs.

Despite the added challenge of playing another away game against a team with a conference-best 6-1 record, the resurgent Corsairs claimed victory, going away by winning three of five games against a tough opponent by a convincing score of 16-25, 25-21, 23-25, 25-23, 15-8.

The opening game saw the Corsairs missing a usual starter, outside hitter Dragan Ivanovic, who in showing up late for the previous day's practice violated team rules and did not start. And with the continued sidelining of team captain and opposite hitter/middle blocker Brian Schirripa due to a broken bone in his left ankle which will keep him out for at least three more weeks, the home team was at a distinct advantage.

Knowing that the Corsairs would most likely set to their remaining go-to guy on the court, multi-position hitter Derek Otte, the Vaqueros were able to block many of his attempted kills. Santa Barbara easily won game one.

SMC Head Coach Mark Lee added that in the first game, "We were getting used to the gym. We didn't play too well and missed a lot of serves."

But with the tough serving and hitting Dragan back in rotation from the second game on and middle blocker Lawrence Craig effectively replacing the injured Schirripa, things became much more competitive as the Corsairs began to gel as a team.

"We got off to a great start with a score of 6-0 (in game two), held on the entire game and won," said Lee.

Though the two teams traded wins in the next two games, the momentum shifted to the Corsairs in the fourth game as they retained their focus and took control.

The fifth and final game was no contest as the Corsairs dominated play and easily finished the match against a stunned Santa Barbara squad.

"By the fifth game, we blew them out of the water," said Otte. "They had no control over what we were doing."

Assistant coach and SMC business professor Michael O'Hara, who has his own legendary history of involvement with volleyball - from dominating local two-man beach volleyball during the early '60s when he and partner Mike Bright won the first five Manhattan Beach Opens, to playing for the 1964 U.S. Olympic squad, and finally to coaching the Corsairs to a national championship in the mid-'60s - was impressed with his players.

By the end of the fourth game, "we so discombobulated the other team that we easily took the final game," said O'Hara. "It was a huge win and must have shocked the heck out of Santa Barbara."

After the match, the coaches and players were effusive.

Coach Lee had a lot of praise to go around. "Our role players did real well. Alexander Craig, David Diaz, Aden Schneider and Colin Kiely all stepped up. They were an integral part of the win." With Schirripa out of action, "sophomores Dragan, Pono, Otte and Victor (Babakhanian) all provided on-court leadership."

Another major aspect of the team's success Friday night "was our hitter coverage," said Lee. "We didn't lose many points from being blocked, because we covered our hitters. That was huge."

Setter Kupono 'Pono' Nu'uhiwa agreed and added, "We are just coming into our own in the lineup. We are about to hit our stride."

"This is the first match we covered successfully," said Schirripa. "We made the little plays this time and that's what gave us the win."

Referring to a recent loss to illustrate his teammate's overall shift in attitude and growing confidence, Schirripa said, "Against Grossmont we thought, 'We can't lose this.' But tonight we thought, 'We can win this.'" Elaborating further he said, "Against Grossmont we were tipping the ball (over blocks) at the end, while against Santa Barbara we were hitting hard through the blocks even though it was close."

Statistical highlights included Otte with a personal best this season of 26 kills, six blocks and eight digs; Dragan with 17 kills, nine digs, and three serving aces; Pono with five digs and a season-high 54 assists; setter Colin Kiely with 12 digs and great passing; middle blocker Victor Guillen with 11 kills and nine blocks; opposite/outside hitter David Diaz with eight kills and ten digs, plus the overall outstanding play from opposite/outside hitter Aden Babakhanian with 16 digs.

The team feels that its best volleyball is ahead of them.

Otte said, "I've been out of volleyball for awhile and am only playing at 70 percent of my ability so far. My best games are definitely ahead of me."

Coach Lee was pleased with team practices in the days before the match as his squad got better with each passing day. "If we keep improving as we have been, we'll have a real chance at winning the state championship," Lee said. SMC's next match is tonight's home game against the visiting El Camino Warriors.