On the eve of the 2014 season, the Laguna Beach High School boys’ volleyball team was having somewhat of an identity crisis. Its floor general and setter Grifan Fair and top three hitters, including emotional leader Weston Barnes, had graduated.
Returning middle blocker Noah Blanton and outside hitter Alec Wulff played the final game of a grueling 26-3 basketball season on Feb. 25. That same day, defensive specialist Jake Hexberg played the final match of a 21-game soccer schedule.
All three were expected to help fill voids left by the class of 2013, yet they had only one week to prepare for the March 4 season opener against Newport Harbor. And there still was no clear successor to Fair.
Under these circumstances, one might expect this team to stumble out of the gate and struggle to find its footing. But at LBHS, success in volleyball is expected, even demanded. And first year coach Darren Utterback was going to do his best to honor that tradition. “I look at what’s in front of me, and I go forward with the best plan possible,” he said. “We were all kind of in it together.”
A veteran club and former girls coach at Capistrano Valley High, Utterback served as an assistant under his predecessor Scott Panaro last season and quickly became a favorite in the local volleyball community. “I love Laguna. It feels like home to me,” he said. “It’s been a big volleyball town forever. It’s fun to be apart of something when people actually know the game.”
When the head coaching position became available during the off-season, many parents urged Utterback to apply for the job. They respected his coaching ability and liked the way he worked with the players. “For people to recognize that you’re good at what you do and want to have you be part of their kid’s lives,” said Utterback, “I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.”
And those who watched Utterback mold his team into a Division II powerhouse and drive them to a state championship this season won’t soon forget it either. “[Utterback] really kept us focused on the end goal,” said Laguna’s libero J.P. Wollam, who stepped into Barnes’ leadership position.
“J.P. definitely took over as a fiery leader,” said Hexberg. “Both Jack [Wyett] and J.P. did that well.”
The Breakers had found their new leaders in Wyett and Wollam, who were named team captains. But Utterback was still searching for someone to feed balls to Laguna’s big hitters Blanton, Wyett, Hexberg, Jack Burgi and Tyler Alter, who combined for 1,292 kills this season.
Using an assist-by-committee approach, in which Wollam, Cameron dePfyffer and Isaac Wulff shared setting duties, the Breakers won seven of their first nine, including a second place finish at the prestigious Dos Pueblos Tournament in Santa Barbara.
But Utterback knew that if the Breakers were going to make a run at CIF, they would need Wollam’s leadership at libero. And dePfyffer, at 5’6”, could not provide the blocking support Laguna needed at the net. Isaac Wulff, at 6’1”, was tall enough and showed excellent decision-making skills, but the coach felt the sophomore wasn’t quite ready for the demands of the position.
In the end, it was the natural ability and soft touch of Laguna’s 3-point shooting ace Alec Wulff who caught the attention of Utterback. The coach pulled the basketball star aside at practice after a 3-0 loss to Corona del Mar and offered him a crash course in the art of setting. “We needed Alec Wulff to learn how to set and learn how to set fast,” Utterback said.
“The coach helped me through that,” said Wulff. “[Setting] got easier and became pretty natural to me.”
Alec Wulff was a natural all right. He recorded 30 assists in his first game at the position against Calvary Chapel. Eight games later on the road against Division I Dana Hills, in what many on the team consider the turning point in the season, Wulff put up 48 balls that his teammates hammered home for a 3-0 sweep. “That night he got it,” said Utterback. “That was really the turning point.”
With Alec Wulff settled in at setter, Wollam directing the troops from his libero position, and the big guys up front hammering down points, the Breakers started their march to CIF. “Heading into the latter part of the season, we really figured things out,” said Wyett.
In their regular season finale, Laguna met up with number two-ranked Esperanza at home on senior night. And it was the seniors who helped make it a night to remember. Wyett, Hexberg and Blanton combined for 39 kills. Wollam dug 15 balls. And Wulff recorded 40 assists, as the Breakers dealt the Aztecs a 3-1 blow.
Things didn’t turn out as well in the rematch at CIF finals. With Laguna leading 24-19 in the third set, Esperanza survived five set points before winning 27-25 to take a 2-1 lead. Laguna battled back to win the fourth set easily 25-18, but they fell short of the team’s seventh CIF title and first since 2010, losing the deciding set 15-9.
Trying to put the sting of that loss behind them, the Breakers dug deep and rallied around each other for one more push to state finals. They rolled through their three matches and hoisted the state championship plaque one week later on the same court where Esperanza had snatched the CIF hardware. “We had to answer back after losing to Esperanza,” said Wyett. “We may not have gotten the one we wanted, but winning state is still an amazing accomplishment.”
For a complete rundown on all the stats, visit MaxPreps.com. Frank Aronoff contributed to this story.