The St. Joseph High School boys volleyball team may be best known for its array of offensive threats, but it was the team’s defense that played a major role in the Falcons’ victory in the NJSIAA Central sectional semifinals Wednesday afternoon.
Top-seeded St. Joseph (39-4) relied upon a strong effort from its back line to survive two close sets and defeat fourth-seeded Hillsborough 25-21, 26-24, for a 2-0 victory.
“I was impressed with our scrappiness and just our defense overall,” St. Joseph coach Miguel Cabrita said. “I know we always have strong offensive weapons, and sometimes we’ve lapsed when it comes to defense, but today they really brought it.”
St. Joseph took the lead at the start of the first set, as senior Sean Finan and junior Thomas Burrell helped power the team. The Falcons extended their lead toward the middle of the set, going ahead by seven after a block by Burrell.
Hillsborough (19-7) made a late 5-1 run to cut the score to 24-21, but the Falcons held on for the first set victory.
“We had some bad runs about a week or so ago in the county finals where we did not come out strong, and that was our defeat right there,” Cabrita said. “It was important that we stayed ahead of the game and played strong and aggressive, not timid.”
In a back-and-forth second set that featured eight lead changes, St. Joseph once again jumped out to the early lead. This time, Hillsborough battled back and took the lead at 9-8. Behind the play of senior Tim Erdman and junior Scott Timko on the outside, the Raiders opened up their largest lead at 15-12.
“We had a tough time in the first set getting some momentum going, but I thought we were clicking in the second set,” Hillsborough coach Todd Sudol said.
St. Joseph, however, scored five of the next seven points to deadlock the game at 17. The Falcons took control over the next few plays, twice opening up a three-point lead, but Hillsborough scrapped its way back to a 24-24 tie.
The Raiders would not take the lead, though, as St. Joseph’s Bryan Rafano gave the Falcons the lead with a kill, and the team sealed the game on the next play.
Cabrita said he kept his advice to the team simple toward the end of the second set.
“Most players, when they get to that type of pressure situation, they don’t want to make a mistake, so they play to lose instead of playing to win,” he said. “I just told the guys to go out there, keep swinging and play hard, and they did just that.”
Subol said it was tough to see his team’s seven seniors end their careers with a hard-fought defeat, but noted that he was pleased with his team’s effort.
“Of course, you want to keep advancing in the tournament, but I thought (the seniors) did a tremendous job all year, carrying us through the tournament,” he said.
St. Joseph will meet a familiar foe when it plays second-seeded East Brunswick on Friday for the sectional title. The Falcons defeated East Brunswick twice during the regular season but fell to them in the GMC Championship on May 18.
“(We have to) just come out with more energy,” Finan said. “We’ve played them three times now, we know them pretty well, so it’s just going to be about who wants it more.”