Newington's Teddy Fravel (left) with 'Double L' teammates Louis Egbuna (center) and Leonel Caceres (right) hope to lead the Indians to thier third straight state championship this spring
Newington boys’ volleyball is entering a stratosphere that few high school sports programs have ever reached.
This spring they began a quest for a third consecutive state championship, and if they complete the journey it would be the program’s sixth title in since 2012.
“We’re going for the three-peat, that’s the plan,” senior Leonel Caceres said following practice last Monday,
“I’m a very confident guy and of course it’s one game a time, but the goal is to three-peat.”
Caceres is coming off an All-State junior season, registering a team-high 321 kills and 45 aces.
2018 ended with a five-set victory over Joel Barlow in the Class M title tilt at Shelton High School and the confident Caceres is already making plans for a return trip to Shelton for the triple dip.
“I came in here as a freshman wanting to win a ring and I’ve got two so far. Now I want that third.”
Entering this season, the program has appeared in six championship matches over the past eight years--- winning in 2012, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, and finishing as the runner-up in 2011.
Veteran head coach Curt Burns has been the guiding force for each of those championships appearance and has most of his weapons returning for a potential 2019 championship campaign.
“It’s probably one of the best collection of athletes that I’ve had. The guys came back physically better. They’re older, they’re stronger, a lot of guys have been in the weight room,” said Burns, who is entering his 16th season at NHS, “The pieces are all there but as far as the cohesive unit, that’s still a work in progress. Believe it or not we still have to work on some things. We’re working on team chemistry and some guys are playing new roles.”
Burns has six of his seven starters returning, including all-conference outside hitter Louis Egbuna, who had a team-high 23 kills and seven aces in the 2018 championship match.
“I got more athletic. I got quicker, I can jump higher, my contact with the ball is better. I think I’m a cleaner player this year,” said Egbuna, who has committed to play volleyball at Nichols College next year, “They showed me the most love. They welcomed me to the team like I was a part of them already. It’s great because all of that extra pressure is off my back. I can just worry about playing volleyball for my high school team and about this season, trying to get back-to-back-to-back.”
The tandem of Caceres and Egbuna have been dubbed “Double L”, a play on their first names which they turned into a celebratory hand gesture.
The duo, along with middle hitters Teddy Fravel and Mason Romano, formed a brick wall at the net a season ago, each breaking the century mark in kills.
Newington’s fearsome foursome is back, each standing over 6’2” and each with the ability to jump out of the gym.
“I think we’re the best middle duo in the state,” a 6’7” Fravel said of his partnership in the middle with Romano, who stands 6’5”, “I don’t think anybody has two middles as strong as us, so that’s probably intimidating for the other teams.”
Since the program’s reign began, chemistry has been a key to the success. The current group gained experience together last season and a handful of players have familiarity with each other from time together on the basketball court.
Egbuna, Fravel, Romano, Julian Ortiz, and Jacob Baclawski are all fresh off a tournament run on the hardwood this winter.
“They all know each other and the comradery and familiarity they get from basketball will hopefully carry over to this sport,” said Burns
“It helps because we’re all comfortable with each other. Since November we’ve been playing basketball together, through the ups and downs and now we’re just transferring it to volleyball. We have such a tight-knit group,” added Egbuna.
2018-graduate and All-State setter Dan Cloutier is the only starter not returning, leaving a void at a key position.
“We lost a great player in Dan and replacing him is going to be a priority. We’re developing a couple of setters. That’s a very big position, being a setter is like being a quarterback or point guard, so we’ve got to work on that,” said Burns
Following his 2018 All-State recognition at outside hitter, Caceres has been filling the role as setter and is ready for the opportunity.
“Wherever I play I’m going to try my best. As the setter you’re like the QB and I accept that challenge,” said Caceres.
Junior Alex DiPaola, who was the setter for the 18-2 JV squad a season ago, will also be in the mix.
Libero Collin Liedke, who had a team-high 330 digs, and Riley Miller are back to round out the returning starters.
The experienced team, featuring six seniors, is laser focused on pulling the Pat Riley-trademarked “three-peat” but the senior class has also been busy mentoring the next generation of volleyball stars at NHS.
“Today coach was talking about the veterans helping out the younger kids with their serves. We want to have the hardest serves in Connecticut, so it’s just about helping them out because we have experience,” said Egbuna, wearing his 6x State Championship Newington Volleyball shirt, “When I was young the older group of guys helped me out so I want to pass it along and help them be as best as they can be, so we can go back-to-back-to-back-to-back.”
“It’s very important,” Caceres added about teaching the underclassmen, “You have to build them up as we’re winning and then they feel like they’re part of that.”
Baclawski is one of the young guys that is primed to take his game to another level this spring. The sophomore sensation has earned high marks so far from Caceres.
It’s a well-oiled machine that shows no signs of slowing down. The team started talking three-peat as soon as the dust settled at Shelton High last June.
“Right after that game we closed our back-to-back group chat and opened up the back-to-back-to-back group chat,” stated Fravel, who will be playing basketball at Clarkson University next season, “It’s got to be right from the gate. Everyone needs to know what to expect when they play Newington.”
Last Saturday, the team’s three-peat quest started off on the right foot, downing fellow powerhouse Cheshire in four sets in the season-opener at NHS. The Indians dropped the first set before winning the final three sets (25-27, 25-22, 25-20, 25-22).
Cacares debut as a setter was spectacular, dishing out 35 assists and a pair of aces. Egbuna earned player of the game honors following his team-high 15 kills.
Fravel and Baclawski each added nine kills, Romano added eight kills and a team-high three blocks.
The Indians next home game is this Friday, April 5 against Enfield at 5 pm.
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin