Volleyball Team on a Five Game Winning Streak

One of the most successful athletic programs at Santa Monica College this year has been the men's volleyball team which during the two weeks prior to Spring Break extended its winning streak to five games, raised its season record to 9-4 and moved ever-closer to a possible state championship.

On April 1 against L.A. Pierce College, perennial contenders for championship honors, the Corsairs dominated from the outset as they thumped the visiting Brahmas by a score of 25-21, 25-16, 25-19.

Even though SMC started the season with 18 players and is now down to only nine active players, those suited up seemed relaxed and confident throughout the entire match.

"They (the Brahmas) came out really soft, talking a lot of trash," said all-around player Derek Otte. "But it didn't seem like they believed it. Their whole game was to set the middle, but they couldn't do it consistently."

Not so for the hosts as the week-by-week elevation of Head Coach Mark Lee's squad was evident in every aspect of their play.

Otte delivered 12 kills, three blocks, three serving aces and three digs.

Outside hitter Dragan Ivanovic had six serving aces, six digs, and eight kills. Setter Kupono Nu'uhiwa had 22 assists, five digs and brought a potent serve as well.

Important contributions came from the bench as outside/opposite hitter Aden Babakhanian, middle blocker Lawrence Craig and outside hitter Aaron Schneider all effectively split time at the middle blocker position.

Both starting freshmen and ex-Santa Monica High School teammates, outside/opposite hitter David Diaz and middle blocker Victor Guillen, had solid games and showed continued growth.

"David Diaz's serving and passing have both improved a lot," said Lee. "His passing gets better every day."

Next up was a critical re-match on April 6 against the visiting and conference-leading (4-1 record in conference, 9-2 overall) Santa Barbara City College Vaqueros, a team SMC had beaten three weeks earlier.

Unlike the previous encounter which went to five games, the Corsairs started off powerfully and sustained that level of play in a tough, but more confident, win of 25-21, 29-26, 15-25, 25-23.

After winning the initial game, the Corsairs found in the next one an opportunity to discover the mental toughness needed to win a tight contest.

"Earlier in the year, we lost some close games," said Lee. "Now we're winning them."

Game three saw the visitors make some adjustments that caught the Corsairs off-guard and resulted in a lop-sided score allowing the Vaqueros to regain some momentum.

Huddling with his players before what turned-out to be the final and winning game, Lee made his own adjustments and reminded his players of what has become his team's mantra.

"We needed to play one point at a time," said Lee. "It's turned into my thing for the season. It's how we beat Santa Barbara the first time."

In what was his best performance of the year, Guillen had 11 kills.

"He was unstoppable," said Lee. "His hitting average was .625. That's excellent. It's like baseball. If you hit over .300 or .400, you are hitting well."

Equally effective was Diaz, who had 8 kills and a hitting percentage of .727.

"David played great, making zero hitting errors and passing really well," said Lee.

The rest of the team produced strong stats, with Otte having 23 kills, three solo blocks, and five digs; Ivanovic had 11 kills, five digs, and two serving aces; Babakhanian had six kills and 13 digs; Nu'uhiwa had 49 assists and set with precision.

Not to be overlooked was the contribution of approximately 15 SMC cheerleaders whose sideline presence amped-up both fans and players, providing an inspiration which definitely boosted the team's spirits, according the Lee. "They really gave us energy," he said.

As many students were leaving town for Spring Break on Friday, April 8, the men's squad was traveling to El Camino College to take on the Warriors.

In a closer match than expected, the Corsairs still dominated, winning three of four games with a score of 20-25, 25-17, 28-26, 25-15.

Coming in flat, SMC started the competition without Ivanovic in the rotation and had difficulty receiving serve. But in the next game the Corsairs' usual squad took the floor and pummeled their opponents.

"We took it to them," said Lee. "We just hammered them...played great as a team."

In the third game, SMC players found themselves down 20-24 and facing a possible loss.

Such a deficit is difficult to overcome when the teams change from rally scoring to side-out scoring whenever one team reaches 24 points.

But with Nu'uhiwa setting perfectly and the Corsairs refusing to blink, they climbed back in exciting fashion and won. "We showed great courage and character in coming back to win," said Lee. "If we had lost that (game), we could have potentially lost the match."

The final game was a walkover as an obviously stunned El Camino team could not re-group against the surging Corsairs.

Team stats included Otte with 22 kills and seven digs, Ivanovic with 21 kills, two serving aces and dead-on passing, Babakhanian with nine kills and four blocks, Diaz with nine kills, four blocks and four aces, Nu'uhiwa with two kills, two aces and 57 assists, and Schneider with 12 digs.