When Cardinal Gibbons standout middle hitter JT Martin badly sprained an ankle three weeks ago, longtime Chiefs coach Mike Zarate began to worry this might end up being another stellar season ruined by injuries.
Martin, a highly recruited junior being scouted by the likes of Pepperdine and Princeton, made extra sure there was no reason for his coach to worry Tuesday night at Archbishop McCarthy. The 6-7 junior packed three extra ankle bracelets in his travel bag. So when the one he was wearing snapped during pregame warmups, Martin was able to quickly slide a new one on.
The Chiefs then went out and made quick work of the reigning state champions, advancing to Friday's eight-team state championship tournament in Naples for the first time in nine years with a 25-15, 25-20, 25-18 sweep of the Mavericks.
“It's been an incredible season, incredible run,” said Zarate, who is in his ninth season and took over the program year after Gibbons last reached state in 2008.
“The beginning of our season it was a little rough. We lost to McCarthy in a tournament, [Longwood] Lyman, who is a very good team and Boca Raton in five sets just a couple weeks ago. We knew we had all the parts. We just couldn’t get them all together.”
Tuesday, though, the Chiefs (23-4) were perfectly in sync.
Even with Martin unable to jump serve or get off the ground as high as he usually does, plenty of others stepped up. Junior Reece Kramer led the way with 19 kills, eight digs, three blocks and nine service points while junior setter Ethan Shinn set his teammates up for easy kills with 38 assists. Martin finished with 12 kills and four blocks.
“It means everything,” Martin said of advancing to state. “It’s been our goal since my freshman year. We had the same exact situation my freshman year and came up short. It's amazing – the best feeling ever.”
Since their last trip to state in 2008, the Chiefs had reached the state play-in games four times and lost in all four including three times to McCarthy (2010, 2012, 2015).
“We played them two or three weeks ago at our place and we beat them, but we knew it was going to be different here,” Zarate said. “The last couple days at practice we prepared with not just how they played, but with a rowdy, loud crowd. We literally had people scream at our guys during practices and scrimmages in our gym so they could get used to it. They didn't get phased by the noise in here at all tonight.”
McCarthy, which brought back only two starters from last year's state championship squad, was led by freshman outside hitter Omar Hoyos (15 kills, nine digs), senior middle hitter James Brooks (seven kills) and sophomore setter Christian Fernandez (30 assists, five digs). The Mavericks finish the season 19-8.
“We knew with all the changes it’s going to take us some time,” said first-year Mavericks head coach Corey Marks, an assistant under Karen Frank during McCarthy's run to back-to-back state title games. “That Gibbons team is powerful man. They’re a good team. They were ready to play. They came out and showed it.”
▪ Killian d. Sunset 25-23, 25-17, 26-24: Killian is headed back to the state tournament for the third time in the past four years, but Sunset made the Cougars work hard to earn the trip.
Killian survived a tense play-in match at their home gym in front of a boisterous evenly divided crowd.
The Knights scored six points in a row to take a 15-12 lead in the final set, kept the lead through 24-23, but the Cougars clawed back, finally going up 25-24 on an emphatic spike by senior Christopher Hallstrand that landed just inside the line.
The Cougars clinched the victory on the next point, and the Killian bench and fans went berserk. Killian reached the state championship final last season, but fell a few points short to Archbishop McCarthy. Longtime coach Clinton Reid, who is retiring after 20 years, would like to bring home the trophy this time.
But he told his players it will take more effort than they showed against Sunset.
“They were playing very, very cautious and not letting go,” Reid said. “They told me they were nervous, and I asked them, ‘Why? You have the skill, so let go and don’t hold back.’ They made a lot of errors they should not have made, but I am proud they held on.”
Killian (25-2) was led by Diego Savelli (38 assists, seven digs), Hallstrand (13 kills, five digs), Nick Estevez (14 digs) and Jomar Mondestin (seven kills). Sunset’s seniors David Gonzalez (12 kills, six digs), and twins Joseph Igorra (24 assists, five kills) and Pedro Igorra (eight kills, four aces) kept them in the match.
“We have a special group, they really, really wanted it, just came a little short,” said Sunset coach Camilo Gaitan. “Great job by Clinton (Reid) once again. I’m going to miss coaching against him. We’ll go back to the drawing board and try again next year.”
The state tournament begins Friday in Naples.