Moments after Newington defeated Joel Barlow in the 2018 Class M boys’ volleyball championship, the conversation shifted to the following June.
“Last year when we finished the championship game we were like ‘alright we got this one now it’s time to move on to the next one’,” said senior setter Leonel Caceres.
Despite just winner their second title in a row, all the returning players could talk about was a potential three-peat.
Last Thursday night Caceres and the Indians took the triple dip, downing Cheshire in four sets (16-25, 25-16, 25-19, 25-22) at Shelton High School.
It was the team’s sixth championship in eight years and the program’s first time capturing a state title in three straight seasons.
Newington earned the title shot in Shelton after holding off a talented Wethersfield squad in the semifinals, winning in three sets (25-20, 25-18, 25-23) at New Britain High School last Tuesday night.
Eagles coach Debbie O’Brien shared an emotional moment with her team following the loss and reminded them to keep their heads held high.
“We came in second in the conference, which we hadn’t done in a while, and we had one of the best records that we’ve had in a long time, and we had never made it to the semifinals. They should be proud of what they accomplished. They had a goal and they worked towards it. It was one of those special seasons, and they came in and enjoyed it every step of the way.”
The Eagles won 15 regular season games and swept through the first two rounds of the tourney, eliminating Bloomfield and New Canaan.
Against Newington they held the lead at some point in all three sets and nearly rallied to take the third, scoring five of seven points late, making one final push to save their season.
“There was no giving up, it’s all heart and confidence,” added O’Brien, “I never thought we were out of it for a second because that’s how this team has been all year long.”
It was a tearful goodbye for seven seniors, including captains Kevin Rascius, Riley Grenier, and Josh Malizia.
“They’re all skilled players. They study the game, they love the game, and they’re gym rats,” O’Brien said of her departing players, “They’re all such great role models and great leaders. They welcomed the underclassmen and were always teaching them and pushing them to improve. They are leaving huge shoes to fill.”
For Newington, it was business as usual.
The tourney win over a neighboring rival was satisfying, yet it was the just a stepping-stone in their triple crown journey.
“We weren’t worried about all the hype around the game. We just have one goal, and that is to get that three-peat. We were only worried about closing it out in three, no more,” said senior Louis Egbuna, who finished with 12 kills.
Fellow senior Teddy Fravel put an end to both the first and final sets, with two of his team-high 14 kills.
“As soon as we started picking holes in their blocks then the game was a lot easier. We started using the whole court and that really allowed us to pull away,” recalled Fravel.
Wethersfield led midway through the first set until Newington’s serving specialist Jasper Cayunda came off the bench and swung the momentum, serving up four straight winners, including an ace.
“We felt as the game went on our serves were bothering them more. Jasper’s four-point run was huge, he made the serves that mattered. That boosted our confidence very much,” said Caceres, who dished out 34 assists.
Julian Ortiz had a team-high three aces and Riley Miller was a force at the net, blocking four shots.
The semifinal sweep was the appetizer for the championship entrée, which was served over ice at Shelton High.
Following the semifinal win, the team’s confident seniors relished the chance to go out as three-time champions.
“We expected to be here and the fact that we got it done is a blessing. Coming in as a freshman I didn’t expect to win a couple of rings and now we have a chance for three. We have the chance to be the first Newington team to go back-to-back-to-back, and that’s what is going to happen,” said Caceres.
“It just shows how hard work pays off. We’ve been working since we were freshman and now we’re all seniors still working hard and we just want one more ring. If we can close it out and get that ring, then we’ll know that all that hard work has paid off,” added Egbuna.
Fravel was more matter of fact and upped the pressure, “We have talked about it as seniors and have come to the conclusion that we cannot lose or else we can’t show our faces at Newington. That’s how serious this is.”
The trio delivered in a big way in the championship tilt, finishing the season the same way they started, beating Cheshire in four sets.
Caceres dished up 42 assists and Egbuna had 10 kills.
Fravel earned championship game MVP honors following 17 kills and four total blocks.
It was a fitting end for a senior class that elevated an already successful program to another stratosphere.
Caceres, Egbuna, Fravel, Ortiz, Miller, and reliable libero Collin Liedke will all be graduating, leaving an obvious talent void.
However, as he has done for countless times over the past decade, head coach Curt Burns has been grooming the next cast of potential champions.
Jacob Baclawski, who finished third on the team in kills this season, will be returning, along with the likes of Cayunda, Mason Romano, Keenan Esau, and Alex DiPaolo.
By next spring, the names above will be dominating the headlines and will potentially be on the road to four in a row.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin