Wethersfield setter Riley Grenier #12 sets up #20 Luke Kelleher during the Eagles loss to Newington last Wednesday. Photo- Jo-Ann Campbell
The stage was set last Wednesday night as the back-to-back Class M state champion Newington Indians (12-1) came into WHS to face a Wethersfield team that had won 10 on 11 matches this spring.
Thanks to timely hitting from their supporting cast, the Indians were able to hold off the fast-rising Eagles, winning in three sets (25-19, 25-15, 25-21).
“They’re having a great year. We knew they were 10-1 and how good they were. The other thing was that they beat East Hartford 3-0 and East took a set from us, so that opened our eyes,” Newington head coach Curt Burns said of Wethersfield, “It was in their building and it’s a rivalry, so yeah we were ready.”
In previous years the juggernaut Indians were always heavy favorites against their neighboring rivals, but this year’s match had a different feel.
Wethersfield battled point-for-point in the opening stages before Newington reeled off four straight winners, taking command of the opening set.
Teddy Fravel and Louis Egbuna each had a kill and then Leonel Caceres rejected back-to-back kill attempts from Wethersfield’s strong frontline, providing a 20-13 advantage.
Mason Romano polished off the first set with a thunderous spike.
“It’s always fun against Wethersfield. I like the gym, it’s small and gets pack and it gets loud. It’s always good to come out of here with the win,” said Caceres, who has embraced his new role as the team’s primary setter this season, “I like the pressure that comes with it. I like the responsibility.”
Caceres was a dominant outside hitter last spring, leading the team with 361 kills during the 2018 championship campaign. The senior has now settled into his new role and is prospering, averaging a robust nine assists per set.
“He’s just been fantastic. He had never set before and decided that he wanted to take on the challenge,” recalled Burns, “He’s just been great, not only as a leader but with his skills. He works so hard and without him taking it to that level I don’t think we would be where we are right now.”
Sophomore Jacob Baclawski shined in the second set, registering four of his nine kills.
“He has such a fast learning curve. I think the big surprise this year is how good of a passer he is. He is one of our strongest passers and his arm is great,” Burns said of his young prodigy.
Wethersfield showed their resolve in the third set, jumping out to a 13-9 lead following great individual plays from seniors Kevin Rascius and Mason Sundquist.
The home team’s lead was short-lived as a kill from as Baclawski ignited an 8-1 Newington run, which ended with an ace from senior libero Collin Liedke.
“He’s got that experience, not only having played four years but he’s played in the offseason and went to Junior Nationals last summer with Leonel. They went out to Phoenix with USA volleyball,” Burns said of Liedke, who was one of the six returning starters from a season ago.
Wethersfield mounted one final rally before junior Keenan Esau closed out the match with his third kill.
Egbuna, who leads the team in kills, ended the night with a team-high 11 kills and Caceres finished with 29 assists.
It was only the second loss on the season for an Eagles squad that charged out of the gate with nine consecutive wins.
“They’ve been working hard from the offseason. Since we got eliminated from the state tourney last year, they’ve been trying to pitch in knowing we had some positions that needed to be filled,” said Wethersfield coach Debbie O’Brien, “We had a solid core coming back. We had some good experience and some good skilled players, but we had a couple missing pieces. Then we had some kids that had never played before come out, so that has helped us. We have a lot of different option offensively and we’ve gelled pretty well as a team.”
Rascius, Conor Senk, Riley Grenier, and Cameron Ky all returned following a successful 2018 season that ended in quarterfinals of the Class M tourney.
Rascius does a little of everything. Senk is the finisher, leading the team in kills. Grenier is the setter, dishing out nearly nine assists per set, and Ky provides the energy from his libero position.
Sundquist, who was a role player a season ago, has taken his game to another level this spring.
“He worked hard in the offseason and was focused on having a great season,” O’Brien said of Sundquist, “Last year he was playing more on the right side now he’s in the middle. He’s been more of a presence, and this was one of his best games today.”
Sophomore Dylan Knapp has also stepped up after seeing varsity action in the tourney a season ago.
“We brought him up last year in the state tournament and he did a great job for us,” recalled O’Brien.
Others, like senior Luke Kelleher, decided to give volleyball a try for the first time and have bolstered the lineup upfront.
Kelleher’s role has been the enforcer near the net, leading the team in blocks.
“They’ve come in with more confidence this year, which makes a difference when you’re going out to win instead of playing not to lose. We had a rough stretch early last year but this year we’ve gotten some big wins early. All offseason they were just itching to get going and I think that built their confidence,” stated O’Brien.
The team will close the regular season with a half dozen games that will test them both physically and mentally. Four of the final six matches are rematch games, including a home date on May 17 against Glastonbury, who snapped the Eagles nine game winning streak in late-April.
“We had some tight matches in the first half of the year and I think we’ll have some targets on our back because we’ve beat these teams and they know what’s coming now,” stated O’Brien, who’d like to see the offense stabilize down the stretch, “We have a lot of hitters and options, so we have to get our passing consistent.”
As for Newington, a five-set loss to Southington on April 25 is the only blemish on their record. The Indians captured the first two sets before dropping the final three.
“We choked in the game, but it happens. We just had to move on and put it behind us and finish the next time,” said Caceres.
Caceres and the confident bunch will get another crack at the Blue Knights on May 14 when they travel to Southington for the regular season finale. Not only will they have revenge on their minds, but it will also be the final tune-up before their quest for a three-peat heads to the tournament.
“We have to get better defense coverage and do a better job on our blocking,” said Burns, “Nobody has a perfect team in the tournament, but we want to be as good as we can be.”
The Starting Five: Local Athletes of the Week
Madison Tessmer- Cromwell (Softball): Tessmer smacked a grand slam as Cromwell easily defeated Portland 18-1 last Thursday. The freshman has been one of the Panthers most consistent players this season, leading the team in doubles and is currently tied for the team-lead with 19 RBIs this spring.
Mike Sobolewski- Newington (Baseball): Sobolewski pitched a no-hitter, striking out six in Newington’s 11-0 victory over Hall last Monday. The seniors amazing accomplishment was aided by fellow senior Ethan Errera, who cranked a three-run homer in the win, which qualified the Indians for states.
Suhani Sheth- Rocky Hill (Tennis): Sheth has burst onto the high school tennis scene, winning 9 of her 11 matches and is Rocky Hill’s #1 singles player this spring. The freshman has received rave reviews from head coach Mike Dudis for her attitude, play, and consistency.
Joe Coleman- Wethersfield (Baseball): Coleman went 4-7 with four RBIs as Wethersfield won back-to-back games over Newington (5-2) and Tolland (3-2) last Wednesday and Thursday. The junior has been a key piece in the lineup for an Eagles team that has won 10 of their first 13 games entering this week.
Dylan Reynolds- Middletown (Lacrosse): The freshman dished out seven assists, all to Joe Chiappetta (who scored eight goals) in Middletown’s 19-10 victory over Bristol Central. Reynolds then tried his hands at goalie and was fantastic, saving 90% and allowing only one goal in a 12-1 demolition of Windsor last Thursday.
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin