As hard as it is to beat a team three times in one season, it’s even harder to knock off the same opponent four times in the same campaign.
The East Brunswick High School boys volleyball team, however, was able to take care of business against a familiar foe, defeating third-seeded Old Bridge 2-0 (25-22, 25-13) to advance to Friday’s NJSIAA Central sectional finals.
East Brunswick will meet the top seed, St. Joseph, for the title on Friday in Metuchen.
The second-seeded Bears (30-3) took all four meetings from Old Bridge this season in straight sets, but received a little bit of help on this day.
Junior Oboh, one of Old Bridge’s stars, was not available for the contest after breaking his ankle while playing for a Six Pack team in Richmond, Va. His void in the Knights’ defense allowed Mike Manne and the rest of the Bears to swing away at will in the middle of the floor.
Despite the fact that East Brunswick had topped Old Bridge (21-9) in their previous meetings, Bears’ coach Greg Rutz knew his team couldn’t just roll the ball out and emerge victorious.
“When you beat someone multiple times, your kids get it in their heads they’ve already beaten that team,” Rutz said. “They think it’ll be easy and it’s not easy. The other team comes in more fired up and more prepared. No matter what the score says, it doesn’t get any easier. They were missing a valuable player and they played great today.”
Even without Oboh, Old Bridge came out as the more determined team, at least in the first set, when they forced 13 ties and took three separate leads. Aiden Albrecht, the other star in the Knights’ lineup, buoyed a comeback from an early 4-0 deficit to take their first lead at 10-9.
But Manne and Dan Leung, who combined for 10 kills in the match, exploited the hole in Old Bridge’s defense time after time, and Manne finished the set with a powerful kill onto the court.
“They were out-playing us; Aiden made some great swings and they made some good defensive stops at the net,” Rutz said. “They came in with some energy and we came in saying ‘oh, there’s no Junior, we can relax a little bit.’ But Old Bridge is still a good squad and they showed it. They battled and luckily we got the better of them in the last couple points.”
After taking the lead in the first set at 21-20, the Bears never looked back, leading the second set from the opening serve and cruising to a relatively easy win. Manne, who also came up with two huge blocks, including one to seal the match, has improved since the start of the season to a point where he’s now comfortable in what he’s doing.
“The biggest improvement for Mike is that he’s more comfortable around us,” Rutz said. “We know that he can put balls away and he knows when he gets the ball, he’s going to put it away. When he and the setter are connecting, that’s how good Mike is.”
With St. Joseph taking care of Hillsborough in straight sets to advance to the finals, Manne thinks his squad may have a leg up on their Greater Middlesex Conference rival.
“They are already out of school and we’re still here, practicing on a regular routine and such, and they’re a little out of sorts, so we’re going to try and exploit that a little bit,” he said.