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Major Challenges Ahead for Defending Champs

Season Preview

Senior Robbie McKnight, the team’s most talented setter, will get his chance to score some points from his new position at opposite hitter. Photo by Robert Campbell

For most teams, each year brings some kind of change and challenge. When key players graduate, others are challenged to fill the void. But some programs succumb to the challenge of change and throw up the apologetic “rebuilding” sign, calling it a season even before it begins.

Laguna Beach High School’s boys volleyball team is undergoing major changes, ones that will challenge them at their core. But there is no yellow construction tape lining Dugger Gym nor are any orange cones out front. Inside, though, a group of passionate young men has been working as hard as they can most every night to prepare for a second consecutive CIF title.

“We’ve got a lot of question marks, but we’re still pretty good,” said head Coach Lance Stewart, trying to convince himself that things aren’t as dire as they might seem.

The Breakers graduated their entire front line from last year’s championship team, including opposite hitter and CIF MVP Travis Woloson, first-team all-CIF outside hitter Scottie Chapel and second team all-CIF middle blocker Reed Thompson.  Those three accounted for two-thirds of Laguna’s kills and half their blocks last season.

Stewart. Photo by Robert Campbell

“We try to adapt to our personnel every year,” said Stewart of the inevitable changing of the guard. But the task that lies ahead is no less daunting. “It’s going to take some work,” he conceded. “It’s going to be a challenge.”

Actually, it’s going to be a series of challenges.

The first challenge will be whether senior Colin Ceithaml, who led the team in blocks with 48 last season, can pick up the slack in the middle left by Thompson. Ceithaml is coming off shoulder surgery that ended his season prematurely and caused him to miss all of the summer club circuit. “I’m back in the game now,” he said, “and I’m going to try my best and help out the team in any way I can.”

Challenge two: replacing Chapel at outside hitter. Stewart had been grooming junior Austin Hillemann to share that role with senior Alec Burk, but Hillemann sprained his ankle during the team’s final practice before its opener against Edison last Tuesday, and is expected to miss the season’s first month.

About the only sure thing on the roster is first team all-CIF setter Robbie McKnight, who led the team last year with 676 assists. But he isn’t going to set this season. “He’s got to much firepower to waste,” said Stewart of Woloson’s successor at opposite hitter.

“I kind of felt it coming,” said McKnight of his position switch.

The senior enjoys the challenge of setting, “You get to choose who you go to; it’s more of a mental game,” he said. But McKnight is looking forward to the extra attention given to the guy who finishes the point.

Challenge three: find a new setter. “We’ve got a couple of people competing for that spot,” said Stewart.

Senior Alex Bekken and junior Jack Winn, who played in only 16 and 13 games respectively last season without recording a single assist, are the two vying for the setter position. “It’s always scary when you have someone new setting the ball,” said Stewart, in obvious understatement.

Challenge four: improve the passing game. Senior Troy Donenfeld and junior Conner Cooper will battle for time at the important Libero position, the backcourt player who fields most of the opponent’s serves and passes them to the setter. “That’s the name of the game,” said Stewart. “It’s how well do you control the first ball that comes over the net. We’ll be leaning on them to help us out.”

Challenge five: run a gauntlet of top tier division I and division II opponents that make up a typical Stewart-made pre-league schedule, and emerge healthy enough to handle league play.

The Breakers will undoubtedly take their lumps in the early going. But they should have little difficulty wrapping up another Orange Coast league title, although they should not overlook an improved Calvary Chapel team, which begins the season ranked ninth in division II. “I hope they’re good. We need that,” said Stewart, welcoming the competition.

Challenge six: Find a way to deal with a tough Corona del Mar squad, which was demoted to division II this season, even after a semi-final appearance last year in D-I.

Laguna enters the season ranked first in CIF, with CdM second. “All that stuff doesn’t mean anything ‘til the end of the year,” said Stewart. “CdM is hands down the top team in our division.”

Challenge seven: stay focused, healthy and hungry. “We’ll be a work in progress,” Stewart conceded. “We’ll be pretty good by the end of the year if we stay healthy and compete in practice.”

The final challenge: win back-to-back CIF titles. “We set the bar kind of high, but it’s always been high at Laguna,” said Stewart.

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