Senior Jacob Baclawski gearing up for a massive spike in the second set as libero Vietanh Dinh, (12) Sean Stegmaier and (14) Eni Lici watch
Flashback to June 6, 2019: Sophomore Jacob Baclawski walked off the court following a seven kill, eight dig performance, helping Newington boys’ volleyball win a third consecutive state championship.
22 months later, Baclawski is now a senior captain as Newington is back in action attempting to defend back-to-back-to-back titles.
“It felt good, but it was a little shaky,” Baclawski said following the team’s first match in 676 days, “We didn’t know who was going to come back. We had a lot of seniors last year that left and went to college, and honestly, we put the new players in and we’ve got some good chemistry. This is a perfect win.”
After having spring competition cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Newington picked up right where they left off, defeating now-conference-rival Lewis Mills in three sets (25-14, 25-17, 25-15).
Head coach Curt Burns said the team is still a work in progress, “I think we played okay, but I think we can play much better. Our errors were our own fault but that we can clean up. It’s been a challenge. Our numbers are not huge but we’re making due with what we have.”
Baclawski is the only returning starter and one of two players, along with Josh Akosa, to play any varsity sets in 2019.
He started his senior campaign with nine kills and seven digs in the season-opening win on April 12. Akosa added seven kills and six digs in his first varsity start.
Setter Eni Lici, who has played with Baclawski in club league, dished out 22 assists in his varsity debut.
“Everyone else is new here. They just haven’t played that much time, but honestly they have been playing very well and clicking. It was a total team effort,” added Baclawski.
Newington controlled every set, trailing only early in the second set and briefly in the third.
First-year players Trey Guest and Vietanh Dinh also debuted with solid performances.
Guest, a senior, had four kills and a pair of blocks, while Dinh is starting at libero as a freshman.
“Trey he’s been playing for two weeks total, and he already has the form down. It’s just a matter of speeding the ball up and hitting it a little harder, but he’s making the good connection. We work on fundamentals every day,” said Burns, who thrust Dinh into the starting lineup, “It’s just a pure numbers thing. The libero spot is a position that you have to serve and pass and as you saw today he’s pretty good at it, so he’s stepped right in and he’s done a fine job. We just try and find the best athletes and train them to play volleyball. He’s done a real nice job.”
With all the new players, including five new starters, Burns has done more teaching of fundamentals, “The new guys have never played volleyball. We’re not only teaching the skills but also the nuances of the games, how to rotate, substitute, they were thrown in the fire from day one. They struggled a little bit tonight but you see that there is potential there, so they have to continue to work on that.”
During the long wait between competition, Baclawski worked on the mental part of the game, reviewing the game film from the 2019 season, while also training his body, “I learned how to prepare for the season and I got my got my weight up because I was around 165 as sophomore. I gained 20 pounds which helped me develop more muscle. I was ready to go back out there and prove myself as a player.”
The added power was on display during both his spikes and serves. He ended the first set with a thunderous spike and served up back-to-back powerful aces to widen the gap in the second.
Following the opening win, it was a mixed bag last week as Newington fell in three sets to Wethersfield on Thursday and rebounded with a straight set win over Rockville on Friday.
Sean Stegmaier shined in the loss to Wethersfield, blocking three shots and adding three kills. Senior Dennis Nguyen played setter against Wethersfield, dishing out 17 assists and then earned the player of the game against Rockville after a four-kill, two-ace, five-dig performance.
Burns, who also coaches girls’ volleyball at Avon, along with his longtime assistant Amy Handel will try and have the team peaking by the time conference and state tournaments roll around.
“We want to put another banner on the wall,” said Burns, pointing to where the championship banners hang at Richard E Rogalski Gymnasium, “There a nice little space right up there.”
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin