By Jeremy Balan
After winning the first game against Lincoln High School in the Academic Athletic Association championship on Friday at O’Connell High School, Galileo Academy hit rock bottom.
The top-seeded Lions were dominated by Lincoln in the second game and allowed the Mustangs to even the match with a 25-12 win, but rallied back to win the final two games en route to a 25-21, 12-25, 25-23, 25-21 victory, clinching their first AAA championship in school history.
“After the second game, I just told them, ‘You just need to relax. I don’t care if we win or lose, just play,'” said Galileo head coach Mark Huynh. “When they loosened up they started to enjoy the game more and it showed.”
Galileo (19-11) led most of the way in the third game, but got a lift from an unlikely source in the deciding fourth.
The roller-coaster fourth game saw 18 ties and nine lead changes, but the Lions pulled away late on the solid play of Felix Fauatea.
Fauatea, a 5-foot-7 senior who mostly plays as a back-row substitute, first knocked in an ace to give Galileo a 23-21 lead, then two points later connected on a back-row kill on the championship clinching point. It was Fauatea’s only kill of the match.
“I’m just blown away,” Fauatea said. “I never thought I would have had the game-winning kill in this game. I just remembered practice yesterday and all the reps we took, went up and put it down.”
Fauatea may have put the final point on the board, but it was the Peng brothers, Jacky (a junior) and David (a freshman), that sustained the Galileo offense throughout. The brothers finished tied for the team lead with 12 kills apiece and combined for 12 kills in the final two games.
“They are our hardest hitters and they showed it tonight,” Huynh said. “Lincoln is such a hard-hitting team and we wanted to at least try to match them.”
The Pengs got the win and the championship, but did not match the production of standout Lincoln senior outside hitters Johnson Li and Philip Xie.
Arguably the best two hitters in the AAA, Johnson finished with a match-high 26 kills and Xie added 16, but the Mustangs (9-5 in AAA play) fell for the second consecutive year in the AAA final.
“[Li] has been coming up big for us offensively,” said Lincoln head coach Vince Tang. “Johnson and Philip have been carrying us all year, because they’re veterans and they’ve been through this. It was a tough [result] again, but I’m still so proud of them.”
Li was downright unstoppable at times, especially in the second and third games where he tallied 16 kills, but as the match wore on, the Mustangs leaned heavily on the pair and went to them on nearly every attack.
“That third and fourth [game], we didn’t pass the ball well and that caused us to force the ball to Johnson and Philip, and [Galileo] knew it was going to them,” Tang said. “They were set up for it and we put ourselves in a bad position.”
The championship may be Galileo’s first, but with all six starters returning next season, they will be considerable favorites to repeat as champions next season.
“I’m sure [the target will be on our back next season],” Huynh said. “We’ve talked about it, and I think the boys like that. When there’s a challenge they play up to the challenge, but it will be interesting to see how they respond next year.”