As the flagship programs of what is arguably the state’s best league for boys volleyball, East Brunswick, St. Joseph and Old Bridge will continue to carry the torch for the Greater Middlesex Conference.
The trio is once again expected to battle for the league tournament title, which St. Joseph won last season, snapping a string of losses in five consecutive finals appearances with a straight sets victory over Old Bridge.
The three teams have helped elevate the play of other conference members, whose coaches have also done their share to improve, encouraging their players to participate in the sport year-round and benefitting from that commitment.
“When you get out of the conference you are already battle-tested,” East Brunswick coach Greg Rutz said. “To know that your conference prepares you for the state, it’s scary and comforting at the same time.”
Schools such as Piscataway, South Brunswick, North Brunswick and J.P. Stevens help strengthen the league from top to bottom.
In junior middle blocker Kyle Mackiewicz, who recorded 209 kills and 50 blocks a year ago, J.P. Stevens features one of the state’s top underclassmen.
“I just think it’s the strength of schedule,” St. Joseph head coach Miguel Cabrita said of the league’s overall success. “They (league teams) play strong opponents most of the season. They don’t have to go out of conference (for competition). Many programs have players that play year round, which brings a whole new caliber of athlete to the court.”
The league’s three top teams will face each other early with East Brunswick battling St. Joseph Wednesday and meeting Old Bridge Thursday, while the Knights and Falcons square off April 9.
Rutz said St. Joseph and East Brunswick no longer have a monopoly on club players within the league.
“In the last six or eight years, we are no longer the majority, so we don’t have the most experienced players anymore,” Rutz said, noting year-round players have helped bring parity to the league. “More and more kids at a younger age are playing and that was the edge we had, and now it isn’t an edge.”
A GMC school has won an NJSIAA state title nine times in the past 15 years with East Brunswick claiming six of those crowns and St. Joseph winning the three others.
The league last won a state championship in 2008 and will be hard-pressed to end the drought with an experienced and deep Bridgewater-Raritan squad standing in their way in the Central Jersey section this season.
“We always keep the goals the same,” Cabrita said. “Our aspirations are to get to the county finals and win that championship and to make it to the state finals. Our team already knows they have probably more work ahead of them. They are young, but definitely have the heart and dedication for it.”
St. Joseph graduated 2014 Home News Tribune Player of the Year Thomas Burrell, a dynamic middle blocker now playing at Stevens Tech who set a single-season school record with 116 blocks last season.
The Falcons, whose starting lineup is junior and senior laden, are led by Corey Ditmars and Justin Dai.
Ditmars recorded 255 kills, 138 digs, 29 blocks and 17 aces last season and is expected to be among the league’s best players. Dai’s skills have sharpened and he is playing now like the team’s quarterback, producing some on offense, too.
An injury to Ditmars and a teammate left St. Joseph without an outside hitter during an important scrimmage against state power St. Peters, which prompted Cabrita to move Tyler Gerckens to that spot. The senior played the position as though he had been there his entire career.
East Brunswick must overcome the graduation of middle blocker Owen Summerer (200 kills, 81 blocks, 12 aces) and senior setter Dylan Mullin (561 assists, 105 digs, 29 kills, 27 aces).
“We lost a couple of really good seniors last year,” Rutz said, noting East Brunswick’s offense will now run around Mark Lysiak, a senior right side to whom the Bears will look to get the ball as often as possible.
Junior Yoni Auerbach (right side) will be counted on along with Jeff Chen (middle), Keith Kuchenbrod (outside) and Tom Pappas (setter).
Old Bridge, with across-the-board athleticism and height, may be the favorite to win the conference.
Outside hitter Dante Whipple, who recorded 181 kills and 54 blocks last season, returns along with Ronit Hemrajani.