Winning state championships have become the norm for the boys’ volleyball program at Newington.
Coming off a Class M state title last spring, the Indians opened the 2018 season with back-to-back wins over Simsbury. They defeated the Trojans in three sets at Simsbury last Monday and then won their home opener (25-12, 29-27, 25-8) at NHS last Wednesday night.
“We have a good group back. Six guys are on the team from the 2017 title team but they were in lesser roles and a lot of them never saw the court, but now they have morphed into starters and that’s a big difference,” head coach Curt Burns said following the successful home opener, “Even though they were on the team last year their roles are much more demanding this year.”
Junior Leonel Caceres is one of those who have been thrust into a larger role this season. He was integral part of the rotation during the championship run a season ago, earning all-conference honors along the way, and has expanded his game even more this season.
“Over the offseason I worked really hard on passing and serving and being an outside instead of a middle,” said Caceres, who had a team-high ten kills in Wednesday night’s win, “In the middle you only play three rotations but I wanted to be a bigger part of the team so I focused more on my passing and my hitting.”
Fellow junior Louis Egbuna saw very little varsity action a season ago, but leads the team in kills and is tied for a team lead with four aces after the first two matches.
“He’s a little taller and a little stronger,” Burns said of Egbuna’s development, “He’s taken his game to a higher level than it was last year, but that’s excepted because he’s a junior and he’s going to take on a bigger role.”
The players may change every couple of seasons but the results remain the same and the one constant has been Burns, who has guided the Indians to four state titles in since 2012.
Last season ended with a exhilarating five-set victory over South Windsor in Plainville. The Indians dropped the first two sets before rallying to take the next three, securing their fourth championship in six seasons.
Eight seniors from the 2017 title team graduated, including three all-conference players and all-state libero Kevin Bilbraut.
Bilbraut was instrumental in helping turn the state championship game around, registering 31 digs and diving all over the court to making several match-altering saves.
Understudy Collin Liedke has assumed the role and picked up where the Bilbraut left off.
“Collin has stepped in with the extra work that he did in club season. He’s a soccer player in the fall but in the winter time he plays club volleyball, which I think six of my guys did,” said Burns, “They come in with a lot of extra volleyball and reps and that’s important.”
Senior Evan Metzger and Dan Cloutier also played club volleyball in the offseason and are splitting time at the setter’s positions this season. As juniors they both played very well, especially in the state championship game when Metzger dished out 55 assists and Cloutier came off the bench to serve up a pair of timely aces.
A trademark during Newington’s dynasty has been constancy from the setter’s position and this spring the veteran coach has two players with the talent and experience to do the job.
“It’s a nice problem to have. I would like to play them both but it’s like when you have two quarterbacks on a football team. It’s nice to have two that are capable of playing that role. They are both very capable, but as a coach I have to make the decision on who is the starter but it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be that way the rest of the year,” said Burns, who gave Cloutier the starting nod in the home opener, “He’s a very good athlete. He’s very smooth. I like to say that he’s a cool customer, he’s very calm and cool and he doesn’t get rattled and he knows how to right the ship when we need it.”
“They’re both great setters. I feel comfortable with both of them,” added Caceres, who is one of the team captains, “The way they play is different, their tempo is different, but they are both phenomenal setters. It’s fun to play with both of them.”
The two setters and the overall depth give Burns an added luxury that the team needed during the second set Wednesday night. The visiting Trojans went toe-to-toe with the Indians and forced extras, before Carceres finally ended the long set with a spike.
“We just want to make the game interesting,” joked Carceres, “It’s good to get it out of the way now and it’s good for our team to get that experience for later.”
“Give credit to them, they played hard and got after it defensively. They really frustrated us, but at the same time we showed enough resolved with our abilities to be able to weather that and still close out the set. We didn’t except it to go into extra points, but we came out very dominant in the third set, which is more what I except of our group.,” said Burns, whose team scored the first eight points of the third and final set, “One thing we have on this team is depth. I have guys that I brought in at the end of the set that could be starters. Maybe a little test is good for us, but you never want to go more than the three set. That’s what you shoot for every match.”
The team is not only deep, but they’re young and versatile as well. Cloutier was the only senior to start in the home opener, but the other six starters come with an extensive athletic background.
“We had 42 guys try out which is the highest in recent memory. We sell it because we have the championships and guys want to jump in and play for a ring. We have some new athletic guys joining the program this year, like Mason Romano who plays basketball,” stated Burns, “The real difference is that we’re getting the multi-sport athletes. Keenan Esau plays football and basketball, Teddy Fravel also plays football and basketball. Now we’re getting the true athletes of the school that are coming out for the sport. The physical strength and size, plus the athleticism, is a nice thing to have in volleyball. If a guy can play tight end in football and center in basketball, he can probably play volleyball as well. Basketball ability translates well to volleyball, we’re a jumping sport and you have to be big and tall.”
Romano and Fravel are manning the middle, standing 6’4” and 6’6”, respectively. Their length allows Caceres and Egbuna to do what they do best on the outside, which is ending rallies with thunderous spikes.
“Personally I like the spike. I’ll leave the blocking to the middles,” stated Caceres, who improved his vertical leap by three inches since last spring, “Last year we were more of a laid back team and this year it is more focused. Losing five starters is no easy task so we have to be focused in practices and focused in games and we just want to get the job done. If we have highs, we get hyped for a couple of second but then it’s back to business. If we have lows, nobody is going to hang their heads. We like to be level.”
Caceres added that the team must get better and more aggressive with their serving as the year progresses in order to give them a shot at repeating.
“We’re a work in progress, it’s only the first week. Obviously weather has been a factor, we only get one court and we have limited space because of the weather, but once weather breaks we’ll have more gym space and we can do more training and things like that. Right now we just got thrown into the fire,” added Burns.
So far it’s been a good start for Burns and his boys, who are aiming to duplicate the feat of the 2014 and 2015 teams, which won back-to-back state titles.
The team is finishing up a pair of road matches before returning to NHS this Friday, April 13 for a rematch with Lewis Mills, who they also rallied to defeat in last season’s tournament after dropping the first two sets.
Friday’s home match starts at 5 p.m.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin