Vikings seeking shot at volleyball title

Nobody likes to lose, but a defeat in a championship game can be particularly painful. So ever since falling to Valley Center in five games in last year’s CIF-San Diego Section Division III title game, the members of La Jolla High School’s boys volleyball team have been able to think about little else than getting back to the final and winning it.

La Jolla could get that chance, and its quest for the championship that proved elusive last year will begin this week. The Vikings are the top-seeded team in the Division III playoff bracket, and after earning a first-round bye, were scheduled to host either University City or El Capitan in a quarterfinal game at May 15 at 7 p.m.

A win there would put the Vikings in a 7 p.m. semifinal game at home May 17, and the championship game is scheduled for 5 p.m. May 21 at Canyon Crest Academy.

“That’s been our overriding theme this year - wanting to make up for what happened last year,” La Jolla Coach Dave Jones said. “I’ve really worked on getting the idea into the guys’ heads that just because you’re the better team on paper, or just because you think you’re the better team, that doesn’t mean you’re going to win a game. We’re not taking anything for granted, and we’re making sure we respect who’s on the other side of the net and play our own game. That’s kind of been the philosophy or motto we’ve been using all year.”

La Jolla finished the regular season with a 24-4 overall record and went 11-1 in the Western League, one of the most competitive leagues in San Diego County.

The Vikings will face some stiff competition in the playoffs, though. The other seeded teams in the Division III bracket who received byes are Cathedral Catholic (2), Ramona (3) and Mar Vista (4).

The Vikings are aiming for their first section championship since 1989, when they beat San Pasqual Academy in four games for the title. They also advanced to the section final in 2003 but lost in three games to USD High School.

La Jolla’s run toward a championship has been fueled by a desire for redemption, but one of the true reasons the Vikings are back in the hunt is that so many of their players are back from last year’s team. Even as players like senior middle blocker Alex Reynolds are missing due to sickness, there are players to replace him.

Jones said this is one of the most complete clubs he has fielded.

“We have a very deep team this season, with a lot of seniors,” Jones said. “One of the nicest things about the team this year is that, for the first time in my coaching career, I have three legitimate middles, three legitimate outside hitters, three legitimate setters. I have an extra person at every position, so to speak.

“When we start losing people, we’re not as strong, but we still have plenty of good players.”

Seniors Dmitriy Yurchenko and Ja’Rodd Watson have filled in nicely for Reynolds when he has been unavailable.

La Jolla has a tremendously complete team, but it has three standouts in its two outside hitters and its setter.

Six-foot-3 senior Matt Jones and 6-foot-2 senior Dillon Lesniak are the team’s top outside threats.

“The both can play anywhere,” Dave Jones said. “Right now, we’re doing a rotation where they both play outside and opposite a little bit. We have a three-outside hitter rotation with one other guy right now.”

Junior Tyler Heap, at 6-foot-5, paces the team from the setter position.

“With his size, he’s a nice setter to have,” Jones said. “Those three are really the backbone of our team.”

The 2007-08 campaign has been a monumental one already. It marks the first time since the section championship year of 1989 that La Jolla has won the Western League. This year is actually the first time since that title season that the Vikings have finished better than .500 in their league, which routinely sends almost all its teams to the postseason.

With that milestone out of the way, the Vikings now turn their attention to winning three more matches this season and finally capturing that goal of a section championship.

“Our whole team seems to have grown and matured a lot,” Jones said. “This is hands down the most talented team we’ve had here, and it has been a long time coming. More than half these guys played on our first freshman team four years ago, when we started to build the program up. We’re in a position, skill-wise, above where we’ve been before. Having made it all the way to the championship last year and not winning it, I just feel like there’s a maturity with this team that will get us through.”