Bears face St. Joe’s with revenge on their minds

East Brunswick boys totally healthy for first time this year

By doug mckenzie
Staff Writer

Bears face St. Joe’s with revenge on their minds

CHRIS KELLY Old Bridge’s Anthony DePalma anchors the Kinghts’ 4x200 relay team to a win during the Greater Middlesex Conference Relays on Tuesday at South Brunswick High School.CHRIS KELLY Old Bridge’s Anthony DePalma anchors the Kinghts’ 4×200 relay team to a win during the Greater Middlesex Conference Relays on Tuesday at South Brunswick High School.

East Brunswick boys totally healthy for first time this year

By doug mckenzie

Staff Writer

It almost seems odd to think the East Brunswick High School boys’ volleyball team has something to prove tomorrow afternoon.

After all, the Bears have won three state titles in the last six years, advancing at least to the state semifinals in each of those seasons, and have been one of the state’s top teams since the program’s inception in 1994. With a track record like that, you would think that the Bears would have nothing left to prove.

But they don’t see it that way. They did not win the state title last year, losing in the semifinals to eventual runner-up Hunterdon Central, and have lost two matches already this year — to defending state champion St. Joseph’s of Metuchen and Clifton, the top two teams in the state. Tomorrow afternoon at 4 p.m. they get a rematch with St. Joseph’s in the latest round of what has become the top volleyball rivalry in the state.

And the Bears are licking their chops.

"The guys have definitely been looking forward to this match," said coach Greg Rutz. "They know they’re a better team than what they showed the first time around."

In that April 24 meeting, St. Joseph’s outplayed the Bears, winning the match 15-10, 15-11. East Brunswick was without junior Greg Hunter, who Rutz said is "probably our best all-around player." Hunter has missed nine games this season with mononucleosis.

"We were missing Greg, and we just didn’t play as well," Rutz said. "But no excuses; they showed up and played very well."

Hunter is expected to return to the lineup tomorrow night, and his presence is sure to give the Bears a lift as they look to regain the top spot in the Greater Middlesex Conference with both the GMC and state tournaments rapidly approaching.

In fact, East Brunswick will feature what was the projected starting lineup when the season began for the first time this year.

"We’ve been juggling the lineup all season for various reasons," Rutz said. "Greg had mono, (junior) Saif Kawash was out with an injury, (junior) Tony Yates had a stomach flu, and (senior) Kyle Morales was out for a while participating in a model congress at the United Nations in Washington, D.C. I think we’ve had eight different lineups over the course of the season."

But Rutz had a fixed rotation in the back of his mind all along, and was simply waiting for everyone to be active.

"We’ve known since week two what the lineup would be; we just haven’t been able to use it," he said. "Now we just have to work on our chemistry and flow. We have the parts to play with anyone now."

Tomorrow afternoon’s lineup will feature three seniors, with Mike McAndrew at the setter spot, Mike Rakowski at the opposite position, and Morales in the middle.

Yates, who Rutz said is probably the team’s best offensive player, will be an outside hitter, along with Hunter. Juniors Brian Johnson and Kawash will be fighting for the other middle spot, while junior Mark Mondry is the team’s defensive specialist.

Junior Eric Nowicki has been a key contributor this season as well, and will continue to get court time the rest of the way.

"Eric filled in and played outside hitter for Greg while he was out and did a very nice job," Rutz said. "He had some big shoes to fill."

Junior Dan Tempkin, a first-year player who Rutz said has vastly improved as the season has progressed, has also seen time in a back-up role, while sophomore Dan Sempkowski has seen time at both outside hitter and as a defensive specialist.

Part of the reason East Brunswick has been able to remain competitive this year despite its constantly changing lineup is the team’s versatility.

"I think we have the most flexible lineup in the state," Rutz said. "And I think we are the most skilled team in the state. We are definitely one of the best passing teams around."

But the Bears do have a disadvantage to overcome.

"We are under-sized," the coach said. "You look at Clifton and they average about 6-4, and St. Joe’s is at about 6-3. I have one kid over 6-2, and just three over 6-0."

But the Bears find ways to compensate for their shortcomings on the court.

"We use our athleticism and play smart, team volleyball," Rutz said. "These guys all have game-time experience. Three-quarters of them play on a club team, and they see the ball very well. We also run a faster offense than most teams."

The involvement with the club team is part of the reason for the rivalry with St. Joseph’s, Rutz added.

"These guys all play club ball together, and see each other once a week," he said. "They travel together and have become friends. But once they step on the court, it’s a different story. Off the court, it’s back to being friends."

St. Joseph’s is coming off a recent loss to Clifton in the Clifton Tournament, but Rutz is not convinced that result necessarily puts Clifton as the state’s elite team.

"I think Clifton had a little easier path to the final, and I thought St. Joe’s looked tired," he said.

Beyond those two teams, Rutz is confident that his team will beat anyone in the state.

‘We haven’t necessarily played all of them, but we’ve seen the top 15 teams in the state this year," he said.

Tomorrow night’s meeting with St. Joseph’s is just another regular season match, but don’t try telling that to the players from the two respective teams. It means much more to them.

"St. Joseph’s was the state champ last year and they’re the team to beat this year," Rutz said. "Before that, we had won three titles in a row."

Tomorrow will be the second out of a possible four match-ups between the two teams this year. So far, it’s 1-0 St. Joseph’s. The Bears hope to even the series tomorrow.

Two great teams. One great rivalry.