Rio Hondo League runner-up La Cañada High and reigning Prep League champion Flintridge Prep will represent the city when the CIF Southern Section divisional playoffs begin Tuesday evening.
The Spartans (15-10) will be visitors in the first round of the Division III playoffs as they travel to Golden West League champion Santa Ana Segerstrom (16-5) at 7 p.m.
Flintridge Prep (17-7) will host Cerritos Whitney (14-5), the Academy League third-place entry, also at 7 p.m. in the Division IV playoffs.
For the Spartans, Saturday represented a return to the postseason after a three-year hiatus.
“Most of the seniors are ecstatic. They hadn’t had a winning season in a very long time,” Spartans first-year Coach Otto Lacayo said. “A lot of credit goes to the seniors who wanted this and worked for it and taught the freshman and others how to compete.”
As with any rebirth, experience is a key factor working against the Spartans, who have no playoff memory.
“It’s going to be really important to make sure the team sees the big picture and realizes you can’t win a CIF title without first winning a playoff match,” said Lacayo, who guided the Westridge School girls’ volleyball team to a 1-1 postseason record this fall. “Excitement is definitely something I’m going to have to watch and make sure the team doesn’t go overboard.”
The Spartans had an up-and-down finish to the season that included a hard-fought 25-22, 26-24, 25-23 loss to divisional second seed South Pasadena (24-1) in the Rio Hondo League championship match on April 25.
That effort was followed-up by a 2-4 run through the Crescenta Valley Tournament in which the Spartans were upset by league rival San Marino, 2-0, in a silver division semifinal match.
La Cañada finished up its regular season with a 3-0 win versus Gabrielino on Tuesday.
“We consider the South Pasadena match as a moral victory,” Lacayo said. “In the Crescenta Valley Tournament, we mixed in some different players and did some different things. Overall, I would say our confidence is high going into the playoffs.”
While the Spartans have a balanced attack highlighted by freshman outside hitter Mel Schroeder, freshman setter Connor Walbrecht and senior middle hitter Mitchell Page, Lacayo singled out one person as his go-to player.
“Even though we can generate offense from different players, when we need a kill, we’re going to go [senior outside hitter] Orion Burl,” Lacayo said. “I think Connor has established a trust with everyone and can go to anyone, but, if we need a kill, we’re going to Orion.”
Should the Spartans win, Lacayo may very well see an old foe in Mayfield Senior coach Jon Basilio.
Basilio is coach at Olympic League champion Village Christian (17-10), which will host Pacific View League third-place finisher Oxnard (7-19) in the immediate lower bracket game. The winners of La Cañada-Segerstrom and Village Christian-Oxnard will meet Thursday.
Even though the Rebels are no stranger to the postseason, there are still several unknowns.
“I’ve been coaching for 16 years and every year we’ve been in Division V. So, this is a real new experience in Division IV,” Rebels Coach Sean Beattie said. “We knew who the good teams were and who to watch out for in Division V and had a real comfort there.”
The Rebels enter the playoffs red hot, winners of nine of their last 10 matches.
The one blemish during that run was a 3-1 setback to city rival St. Francis on Wednesday that snapped a nine-match winning streak.
“Even though we dropped that game to St. Francis, we were right there and were in every game,” Beattie said. “Hey, they have two guys going [to play Division I college volleyball], so confidence-wise, I think that game helped. I think we can play with just about anybody.”
Beattie’s confidence stems from his team’s depth.
While it’s easy to focus on middle blockers Kareem Ismail (2.7 kills and 1.5 blocks per game) and Trip Westmoreland (one kill and one block per game), who will be at the center of the offense and defense, a game plan solely created on shutting down the duo may be fool’s gold.
“The great thing about us is that everyone on this team, during one game or another, has led this team in kills,” said Beattie, who has a pair of powerful pin hitters in Chadd Cosse (2.5 kills per game) and Dante Fregoso (2.3 kills per game). “We’re well-balanced.”
The concern may very well be on Ismail, the team’s 6-foot-5 leader, who rolled his ankle in the first game of a 3-0 win versus archrival Pasadena Poly on April 26.
Ismail played the rest of the match, but later that evening missed an all-star basketball game. Ismail did play in the team’s season finale Wednesday and is “likely to be 100%” at match time, according to Beattie.
As for Whitney, Beattie admits he has little info on the squad.
“I know one of their coaches — Elliot Walker — used to coach at Salesian. So, I can anticipate they’re a well-coached team and will be one of the best teams we’ll see,” Beattie said. “Regardless of their style of play, we’re going to assume that they’ll be difficult.”
A victory would vault the Rebels into Thursday’s second round against either Santa Fe League runner-up Los Angeles Salesian (14-8) or Los Padres League second-place finisher Santa Ynez (10-14) with a possible showdown with divisional top-seeded Los Angeles Cathedral (23-9), the reigning divisional champion, on the horizon for a Saturday evening quarterfinal showdown.