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Volleyball State Final: Newton South 3, Agawam 0

6/14/2014

HUDSON, Mass. -- Newton South junior Jonathan Lee isn't the most intimidating playing when he stands next to the net, measuring in at 5-foot-8.

But when he takes off for an attack, his 32-inch vertical leap changes everything.

Lee had a team-high 13 kills and Newton South swept Agawam, 3-0, to win the 2014 MIAA Boys Volleyball State Finals and complete a perfect 25-0 season. It was a sweep for the Lions but all games were close - 25-20, 25-23 and 27-25.

"I'm still pinching myself," Newton South head coach Todd Elwell said. "It feels like a dream."

In the first game, Lee set the tone early -- and often -- for the Lions. Admittedly, he wasn't one of the ten tallest people on the court but that didn't stop him from making his mark. Agawam started the game with an service error - something that haunted them throughout - and the Lions were off. Lee rattled off four kills in five points, including three in a row capped with a block kill, to give Newton South an early 6-3 lead.

The lead was never was greater than five for South in the first game and Agawam even battled back to tie it at 16-16 and 17-17. But three errors from the Brownies, an ace from South setter Jared Chin and a pair of kills from Michael Horenstein gave the Lions a six-point lead at 23-17.

Agawam got two points back before Philip Levine-Caleb put South within one. A kill from Agawam's talented middle Wade Robidoux kept the Brownies alive for a moment, but on the next play, Lee slammed his game-high fifth kill to take game one.

"I'm ecstatic," Lee said, just moments after clinching the state title. "Everything feels surreal right now. I would not believe that we would have made it to the state finals but we just played every match one and at a time."

Game two was much tighter and turned into a tale of errors. The Brownies jumped out to a quick 5-1 lead but that didn't deter the Lions, who rallied to eventually tie the game at nine. After the tie at nine, the teams were even seven more times at 10, 11, 13, 17, 21, 22 and 23. It was Newton South that continued to go ahead after breaks but the Brownies were resilient, tying it every time -- or almost every time.

With the game knotted at 23, Agawam committed their ninth error of game two alone but touching the net. On game point, Newton South junior Tomer Keren's fast-paced serve was tough to handle for Agawam, as it popped back up in the air coming back to Newton South's side. But Lee timed it perfectly and swung through, making full contact for his third kill of game two to win the game, 25-23, and give the Lions a 2-0 lead.

"We had a couple of big matches coming in here in our sectional final and the semifinal," Elwell said, "They both were five setters, one we were up two and one we were down two, so if it was going to go more sets, we were emotionally ready."

For the majority of game three, Agawam -- with their backs against the wall -- were in control and a fourth game looked likely. The teams traded points for the first 20 points of the game before the Brownies were able to create some separation behind the hot hand of outside hitter Bailey Cecchi (game-high 18 kills).

Cecchi rattled off three straight kills midway through the game, a block kill from Jeff LeClerc and then an ace from Zach Goggin gave the Brownies their largest lead of the whole match at 18-12.

But down eight, the Lions didn't falter. They had already used both of their timeouts for game three so Elwell was forced to communicate with his players between points.

"I do a lot of communicating while the game was going on," Elwell said. "I told them that they were playing for momentum. I told them to play one point to the next and thankfully they picked themselves up. There was a hiccup in there and then we started passing a little better and made some better plays so they showed some perseverance."

An error from both sides made the score 19-13 in favor of Agawam, but that's when the Lions roared back. The next three points were all errors - two from the Brownies and one from Newton South. But a big ace from Lee titled the momentum pendulum in favor of Newton South. Back-to-back kills from Joe Esbenshade and Levine-Caleb, an Agawam hitting error and then a combo block kill from Lee and Levine-Caleb brought the Lions within one at 21-20.

Agawam's Ben Cassidy came up with a big block kill to put the lead back to two but another service error hurt the Brownies. Cecchi pounded home a kill for Agawam to take a 23-21 lead but yet again, it was a serving error that brought the Lions back within one. Newton South tied things up via Lee, on an assist from Chin (28 total assists) before the Lions were called for being in the net, to go down 24-23.

"When we all huddled up we were just talking about getting one point at a time and we can't let up," Lee said. "We came all this way and we wanted to make it worth something. We just get each other up and kept talking to each other."

On game point in the third game for Agawam, it was Lee yet again that used his crazy vertical jump to leap up and slam down a kill to tie the game at 24. Cecchi responded with a kill on an assist from Goggin to get another chance at game point, but the next three points will give the Brownies nightmares.

The Brownies were called for being in the net to tie the game at 25, committed a hitting error to give Newton South a 26-25 lead and then were called for being in the net yet again - their 15th error of game three alone - and the Lions took the game 27-25 and the match 3-0.

"We came in with the right frame of mind, but once we got here I thought we weren't mentally prepared," Agawam head coach Patricia Demers said. "We were physically prepared but there was a little bit of confusion for some of the guy's job descriptions on the court. They needed to talk a little bit more on the court. Unfortunately, when they got a good kill, they celebrate instead of getting back in the game. They have what it takes, just not tonight."

It was a storybook ending for the Lions, who weren't perfect in early season tournament play, but took care of business in the regular season and the playoffs. They only returned two starters from last season -- Chin and Esbenshade -- and battled back from a 2-0 deficit earlier in the playoffs.

"No," Elwell admitted when asked if he thought his team would go undefeated and win a state title. "I knew we would be pretty good but I knew we needed to get a little better each day and each week and then it would roll on its own. As long as we learned from our mistakes and kept our head up, we'd be fine. We didn't want to pull a Patriots and go undefeated in the season and then lose in the finals. I'm so proud of the guys, it was an amazing season."

FRUSTRATING END FOR AGAWAM, DEMERS CLEAR ON FUTURE PLANS

Agawam finished the season 20-3 and were declined a chance at repeating as state champions after winning last year. It was a frustrating end for the Brownies, who ended up committing 32 errors total in three games.

"I said to them 'Number one, you have to stay out of the net. Number two, you have to serve the ball.' It's the two easiest things to do."

Demers admitted Cecchi's kills in the third game helped the Brownies stay afloat, but was quick to point out their block coverage for him was weak. She also credited this season class -- six of them -- for cementing their legacy in the 16-year history of the program.

"It's very strong," she said. "They're very well known, they're liked. They have some strengths and they've helped the younger guys coming up."

The loss was clearly painful for the players and Demers, but that didn't change how sharp the 82-year-old was post-game, answering the question about her future without any hesitation.

"Yeah, I plan on coming back next year," she said with a smile. "People keep saying that they hear I'm retiring and I ask them if they know something I don't know. I started this program and I'm not going to give up until I've coached 20 years."

When asked if she knew if she was the oldest coach in the entire state over any sport, she was quick to answer that, too.

"I don't know, I hope they are some more gutsy people out there."