MONMOUTH JUNCTION – Near the end of the first set in Tuesday’s NJSIAA Tournament of Champions semifinal, the Bridgewater-Raritan High School boys volleyball team stormed back to take a 23-22 lead, prompting Southern to call a timeout.
As champions do, Southern (36-2) replied with three straight points to win the set and the defending state champs rallied to take the second set as well, earning a sixth straight trip to the Tournament of Champions final in South Brunswick.
Behind the stellar play of senior Mike Gesicki, Southern proved too much for the Central Jersey champion Panthers (23-7), who were valiant in defeat.
“I think they just had a few more kill opportunities than we did in transition; we gave up a couple more free balls that they were swinging back at us, and at this level, you have to be aggressive to win,” Bridgewater-Raritan coach Corey Romanak said. “You’re not going to win by hitting free balls over the other team’s swings, so I think they were a little more aggressive at the net and that was the difference.”
Gesicki, who will play football at Penn State in the fall, had seven kills in each set, and Romanak knew his squad would have to pay extra attention to the 6-5, 245 pound middle blocker.
“We know his strong shot is across court, so we tried to move the block, trying to force him a little bit into an uncomfortable position, but he’s a great athlete,” Romanak said. “We had a couple of plays on him, but not enough to stop him.”
Mitchell Repak and Danny Gallagher paced Bridgewater-Raritan with seven and six kills respectively and Niko Lambert finished with nine digs, while BJ Blair had 21 assists and five digs for the Panthers, who were making their first appearance in the Tournament of Champions since 2006.
With six state titles — tied for most all-time — Bridgewater-Raritan will have to wait at least one more year before adding to the total.
But on Tuesday, Romanak’s usage of timeouts nearly got the Panthers into Thursday’s championship match. After each of his four timeouts, Bridgewater-Raritan won the immediate point, including going on a 5-0 run to take the 23-22 lead late in the first set. He said afterward that he simply told his players to remain focused, and it translated on the court.
“You’re playing one of the best teams in the state and one of the parts of the game plan coming in was we had to stay disciplined and stay aggressive. I think that after each timeout, there was no letup,” Romanak said. “When you play a team like Southern, you can get star-struck by some of their swings, and we didn’t do that. We knew coming in that Gesicki was going to get his swings, but we know that they’re only worth one point. We played aggressive for every point there was and whenever had the opportunity to capitalize on a point, I feel like we did. But I think they had a few more swings than we did today.”
Bridgewater-Raritan, which was swept in the prestigious Super Six Tournament at St. Joseph in early May — with a loss against Southern thrown in — and looked like it wouldn’t be much of a factor in the state tournament, left Romanak very proud following the loss Tuesday.
“I couldn’t be any prouder of this team; they’re the true definition of a team,” he said. “You look at our stats, we don’t have one guy that’s getting 30 kills a match; I have five guys that are getting six kills a match. I love this team.”