HILLSBOROUGH — For the East Brunswick High School boys volleyball team, Saturday’s 8th annual Raider Invitational final against Southern was a lot like a championship boxing match.
The Bears, who won seven of their eight games in pool play to qualify second for the knockout stage, led from the start until the score was 17-16. But top-seeded Southern fought back to force six ties before taking a 23-22 lead that they’d hold on to en route to a 25-23 victory and the tournament title.
“They just kept taking punches and throwing punches and waiting their turn and I guess we dropped our hands a little bit and they hit us a couple of times,” East Brunswick head coach Greg Rutz said. “It is what it is. They beat us and they outplayed us. I thought we played well, but they played a little bit better.”
The Bears wouldn’t have been in the championship fight if not for a dominant effort in the semifinals against Hillsborough. The Raiders won the first game 25-23, but right from the start of Game 2, East Brunswick took charge. They would never trail and used a 5-0 run in the middle of the game to blow it open, eventually winning 25-19.
“I think we started Game 1 poorly; we gave them some points and I think Hillsborough fought so hard to get there, that after Game 1 they were spent. They were done,” Rutz said. “I think they just got a little fatigued and we kept doing what we do. That’s what happens in a tournament like this: you get tired at the end of the day, especially when it’s your own and your emotions are high trying to win it.”
East Brunswick took care of business against Hunterdon Central in the quarterfinal round, easily knocking out the Red Devils by scores of 25-16 and 25-19. But by the time the Bears got to the knockout stage, they’d already played eight games and, with this being the end of the season’s first week, Rutz said his team was feeling it.
“I would think that we got more mentally fatigued than anything,” he said. “I think we got frustrated with what wasn’t being called, on both sides.”
Rutz knows that there are bigger prizes that his team has their eyes on.
“Yeah, it’s fun to win these, but it really doesn’t mean anything,” Rutz said. “The things you want to win are your conference, your conference tournament and the state tournament. Everything along the way is just building blocks to get there.”
The Bears weren’t the only Greater Middlesex Conference team to play well Saturday, as Piscataway gave Hillsborough everything it could handle before bowing out in the quarterfinal round. But what’s more impressive about Piscataway’s run was that they did it without one of their top players in Ahjon Petty, who’s out with an ankle injury.
Coach Adrian McConney gave high praise to sophomore DaShawn Williams, who stepped in for Petty and helped the Chiefs put a real scare into Hillsborough.
“Some guys like DaShawn are getting some great experience,” McConney said. “We’re starting to mesh and I was able to try some different things, which was nice. I like some things that I’m seeing.”