For the nine seniors in the St. Joseph High School boys volleyball roster, their fourth matchup of the season against East Brunswick was going to be their last home match, regardless of the outcome.
The top-seeded Falcons made sure that the final time they pulled on their home uniforms would be a memorable one, prevailing in three sets (21-25, 25-17, 25-22) to win the NJSIAA Central final Friday afternoon.
The Falcons dropped the opening set in front of a raucous crowd that filled every available seat in the St. Joseph gymnasium, but turned it on in the final two sets, behind the stellar play of Michael Hilyard and Ray Kowalski. The pair of seniors took second-seeded East Brunswick out of their rhythm with powerful jump-serves.
“I really just wanted to finish it out and do some damage and help my team and I gave it everything I had,” Hilyard said. “It feels amazing.”
St. Joseph seized control of the match in the middle set, leading the entire way, with Kowalski playing a major role. He was directly involved in four consecutive points as the Falcons took a 7-4 lead, either with a block or a kill, but the Falcons weren’t able to pull away from the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament champions. Dan Leung kept the Bears within striking distance, but a 6-0 run with Hilyard serving opened up a six-point lead at 19-13 and gave the home team all the room they needed.
“We just stopped being afraid to hit it out of bounds and we really turned up our offense instead of just trying to tip the ball up and over the net,” Hilyard said.
Kowalski finished off the second set with a powerful kill to set up a dramatic final between the top two teams in the state.
East Brunswick took early leads of 1-0, 2-1 and 6-5, but there were 17 ties in the final set, including consecutive points from 9-16 and 18-22.
One of the biggest plays of the set came when St. Joseph’s Kurt MacDonald dove to his left and one-handed a dig over the net and out of the reach of the entire East Brunswick squad for a point that electrified the standing-room only crowd.
“We’re used to playing matches where we go into a gym and it’s just as loud and there’s probably half a dozen St. Joe’s fans,” St. Joseph coach Miguel Cabrita said. “And for the guys today, they kept saying in timeouts that these people are all here for us. We can’t let them down and I loved hearing that.”
The Bears took the lead at 22-21, but St. Joseph battled back to force the last of the 17 ties at 22-22 before East Brunswick’s Alec Weissman was whistled for a net violation. The final two points of the match came on aces from Hilyard, who felt extra motivation to beat the Bears.
“It feels amazing because they’re always our biggest rival, so we respect the competition and it was a really great game,” he said.
East Brunswick survived a 5-0 Falcons run in the middle of the first set to take the early lead, behind the swinging of Jack Fredricks. The senior converted the final two points of the set, both powerful kills, but the Bears couldn’t seal the deal and advance to next week’s Tournament of Champions.
“The toughest matches are the ones when you drop the first set,” Cabrita said. “The other team has a comfort level and they’re in their wheelhouse and they’re not afraid to make mistakes because they have a set under their belt. But our guys held strong and not once did they turn on each other or blame anybody but themselves. I told them that I’m the most proud of this team than I have been in a very long time because they did all the things the coaches asked of them.”
The Falcons will compete in Tuesday’s Tournament of Champions at South Brunswick High School against one of the other three sectional champions.
“I have a really good feeling about this year; we haven’t won since 2008 and I’d really like to bring it home my senior year,” Hilyard said.