The message was simple during the first timeout of Saturday’s Greater Middlesex Conference girls volleyball tournament final. With his team trailing by four in the early going, Old Bridge coach Andrew Hopman told everyone to exhale.
“I said, ‘OK girls, we got the jitters out of the way now, let’s go take care of business,’ ” Hopman recalled.
Did they ever. The fourth-seeded Knights went on an immediate run, seized the lead and never looked back, sweeping second-seeded John F. Kennedy 25-21, 25-19 before a packed house at J.P. Stevens High School.
For Old Bridge (21-7), it marked the third GMC volleyball crown and first in a decade.
“It’s been 10 years since our school has done it, so it’s a great feeling we did it our senior year,” said captain and libero Erica Kokoszka. “It doesn’t even feel real right now. It’ll sink in the next few days.”
Kokoszka finished with 15 digs and two aces. Fellow captain Marta Belli, the setter, turned out 22 assists.
“We had to talk to each other, remain calm and just play our own game,” Belli said. “In the back of our minds, we knew we could do this.”
Middle blocker Lizzie Joseph and outsider hitter Olympia Chelchowski registered eight kills apiece for Old Bridge, and Alexandra Verello chipped in two aces. The Knights were particularly sharp in serving and receiving serve.
“Serving and serve receive is everything. We practice that 70 percent of the time,” Hopman said. “We know it’s fancy to go up there and crush the ball or get a nice block and get the crowd going, but the meat and potatoes of the game is serving and serve receive.”
John F. Kennedy (24-4) made a solid showing. The Mustangs trailed 24-17 in the first set but reeled off four straight points to make Old Bridge sweat. In the second set, Old Bridge led by five points at several junctures before John F. Kennedy closed to within two at 14-12 and forced a timeout. But a couple of kills by the talented Joseph broke it open.
“It’s all about momentum and energy,” John F. Kennedy coach Bob Hugelmeyer said. “The difference in the first set was, they got a couple of rolls that went their way. When they got a hold of that momentum they didn’t let go, and you’ve got to give them a lot of credit for that. That’s the way it goes and they were great today.”
For the Mustangs, Jolie Tang tallied nine assists and three kills and Cassandra Garrison notched seven kills.
“I couldn’t be more proud of them,” Hugelmeyer said. “They’ve had a common goal all year, and unfortunately that was to win this thing. But they’ve worked really well together. Most of them are seniors, and they worked really hard to get to this point.”
These two teams met earlier this season, and the match went the distance as Old Bridge pulled out a 27-25 triumph in the third set. This was more commanding.
“It shows how much we’ve grown as team over time and how much we’ve improved,” Kokoszka said. “I knew from the beginning we had the potential to be here right now. It’s great we actually went through with it.”