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Beach Volleyball

Canadians Gabe Burlacu-Jake MacNeil Win Santa Barbara Men’s Open Title

Local team of Ric Cervantes-Mike Stewart fall in final after winning 3-set matches in quarters, semis

Gabe Burlacu passes the ball while teammate Jake MacNeal moves toward the net during the championship match of the CBVA Santa Barbara Men’s Open. The Canadian team won the title. Click to view larger
Gabe Burlacu passes the ball while teammate Jake MacNeal moves toward the net during the championship match of the CBVA Santa Barbara Men’s Open. The Canadian team won the title. (JC Corliss / Noozhawk photo)

A duo from Toronto, Canada battled through some tough competition and beat a local team to capture the championship at the California Beach Volleyball Association Santa Barbara Men’s Open on Saturday at East Beach.

Gabe Burlacu and Jake MacNeil fought off the determined local team of Ric Cervantes and Mike Stewart, 23-21, 21-16, in the final to become the first Canadian team to win the tournament.

Burlacu and MacNeil are part of the Canadian National Beach Volleyball Team that is training in Southern California.

“We wanted to get in some training for a week in California and some of our buddies told us there was a tournament here, so we might as well play a tournament,” said the 6-foot-6 Burlacu. “We’d never been to Santa Barbara and we heard it’s a great beach, so we made the trek.”

Outstanding defense and a pair of ace serves by MacNeil sparked the Canadians on a 5-0 run in the first set that helped them to a 14-12 lead. Burlacu scored on a cut shot and MacNeal dug a ball and followed with a kill for an 18-14 advantage against the locals, who survived three-set matches in the quarterfinals and semifinals.

“Jake’s defense is always phenomenal,” Burlacu, 23, said. “That’s what makes us a good team — I’m a good shot blocker, so I can swat what’s high and he’s very good at the hard-driven (balls). As a team we mesh really well.  It’s really exciting to watch when he gets in a zone like that.”

Said MacNeil of his defense: “It’s pretty easy. Gabe is a really big blocker, so he does a lot for me up there and I’m just behind him trying to dig whatever I can. He makes it really easy by putting up his hands. I really appreciate that. He makes me look good back there.”

Stewart was impressed with MacNeil’s game. “He was fast, he was very deceptive. We thought we were making good shots, shots that would normally go down against anyone else, but he was there and his partner was a great setter,” Stewart said. “For a small guy, he was pretty powerful and he was putting it away.”

Cervantes-Stewart kept grinding and rallied to tie the score at 19. The teams traded side outs before a long service gave the Canadians a 22-21 lead. Burlacu then blocked Stewart to give his team the first set.

Burlacu-MacNeil rode the momentum of the first-set victory to a 7-3 lead in the second set. Everything was working for them. At 5-1, Burlacu stunned everyone with a sweet back-set-on-two play for a point.

“It was a long rally and I saw them lining up (on defense),” Burlacu explained. “They were predicting that Jake was going to hit, so I saw the blocker moving and the defender switch sides and I kind of flipped it back over the net. Luckily, they didn’t get a read on it.”

Burlacu had a sheepish smile as he slapped hands with Stewart on the side switch.

“You hate it when it happens to you but you got to respect it because it’s a smart play,” Stewart said. “You have to give it to them.”

Burlacu said setting is one of his better skills. He’s picked up tips from watching Olympic gold medalist Phil Dalhausser.

Some of the home-town hecklers cracked that Burlacu and MacNeil drank maple syrup before the match. 

Burlacu played along and replied that he had maple syrup on his hands and that’s why he was setting so well.

Boosted by the crowd, Cervantes-Stewart continued to battle and pulled to within one, 15-14, on a kill by Stewart.

“It was awesome having the community out here to cheer us on and heckle for us,” Cervantes said. “I really appreciate all those guys.”

Burlacu and MacNeil would not be denied of winning a title in California. Burlacu again scored on second-ball hand set to end a long rally and MacNeal placed a ball in the deep court to go up 19-15. 

Stewart ripped a ball for 19-16, but MacNeil and Burlacu scored the last two points to finish the match.

“Those guys were the real deal,” said MacNeil of Cervantes and Stewart. “I can’t say enough. I just met them today, and they’re really, really good players. The little guy (Cervantes), he’s everywhere on defense as well, and that made for some long rallies and exciting plays.”

Cervantes, a Santa Barbara High alum, felt the turning point of the match came in the first set.

Ric Cervantes, lying on the side, and Mike Stewart celebrate after winning their semifinal match in three sets. The third set score was 21-19. Click to view larger
Ric Cervantes, lying on the side, and Mike Stewart celebrate after winning their semifinal match in three sets. The third set score was 21-19. (JC Corliss / Noozhawk photo)

“We were up 7-3 and (MacNeil) went back and got 4-5 points on his serve on the good side. That was the set. Had we stopped the bleeding a little bit and held that to a two-point run, we win the first set,” he said. “We were in rhythm, we were playing well and then we were gasping … we were grinding it out.

“The second set, they just made more plays,” he continued. “They’re a good team. They beat some really good teams to get to the final. They earned this one for sure.”

On his team’s stamina in the final after playing three sets matches in the semifinals and quarterfinals, Cervantes said: “You always got to empty the tank when you’re in the final and leave it all out there. And I think we did that.”

Earlier, Cervantes-Stewart pulled out a tense three-set semifinal win over Orange County’s Branden Clemens and Ben Vaught. The 15-point third set went to 21 points. At 18-all, Cervantes hit a sharp cut shot that appeared to touch the sideline. Referee Brant Lee ruled it out and Cervantes and Stewart argued the call. They regrouped for the next play and Stewart crushed the ball to even the score at 19-19.

“We didn't really have a choice. He wasn’t going to change it,” Stewart said of the controversial play. “My partner was like, ‘Hey, there’s nothing we can do. It’s done, it’s over.’ We just hit the reset button and kept pushing.”

On his big hit for the tying point: “Definitely a little anger swing,” said Stewart.

Vaught was called for a mishandled set on the following play and Cervantes scored the match-winning point on a deep poke shot for an exhausting 21-19 victory.

Cervantes-Stewart defeated Santa Cruz’s Jacob Landel and Chicory Roth in a three-set quarterfinal.

Burlacu-MacNeil beat Brian Cook-Adam Roberts in the quarterfinals and knocked out top-seeded Michael Boag-Jorge Martinez in the semifinals.

Noozhawk sports editor Barry Punzal can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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