SOUTH BRUNSWICK - Mike Gesicki thrust his muscular arms skyward, let out a yell and then climbed into the stands to hug his mother and a rowdy bunch of Southern Regional High School boys volleyball fans Thursday.
The junior three-sport standout had a right to celebrate, as did the rest of the Rams. They earned the program's third state championship in five years with a 2-0 (25-22, 25-20) victory over St. Joseph-Metuchen at South Brunswick High School.
"I was hugging everybody," said Gesicki, who also is a standout for Southern's football and basketball teams. "It's been 365 days since the last time we were in this gym (losing the 2012 state final to Fair Lawn) and we've been working toward getting back here and winning this time ever since. To finally accomplish that goal feels amazing. Nothing beats winning a state title."
Winning the state title helped erase the disappointment of losing in back-to-back state finals to Fair Lawn. The Rams (35-4) got a measure of revenge by eliminating the Cutters in Tuesday's semifinals but made it clear that they would not have been satisfied Thursday unless they boarded the bus for the ride back to Stafford Township without the championship plaque in their possession.
After celebrating that win on the court, they would not pose for any group photos without the trophy.
"The way our program is now, it's championship or bust for us every year," coach Eric Maxwell said. "That's been hanging over us for the last two years, so this is like a weight has been lifted off us.
"I know it's just a volleyball game, but this means so much to us. I wanted it this year for the kids so badly because of all the hard work they've put into this. And they wanted it for me, too, which means a lot. I think that's why we were able to win this today. We wanted it for each other."
St. Joseph-Metuchen (41-5) hung tough for the first game. Led by senior outside Sean Finan, the Falcons jumped to an 18-16 lead before Southern rallied.
With the game tied 20-20, the Rams reeled off four straight points en route to the 25-22 win. Gesicki got two of his game-high seven blocks during the run. After the second one, he flexed his muscles for the fans while shaking his head at the Falcons' front line.
"Everyone needs an emotional leader in big games," Gesicki said. "And if that's my role, I'll take it every time. I love to get the team fired up."
The second game didn't have the same drama.
St. Joe led 13-12, but Southern controlled the match the rest of the way. Gesicki, senior outside hitter Brandon Lee, senior setter Luke King, senior outside hitter Kyle Ficken and senior defender Jake Necamp helped the Rams storm to a 22-17 advantage.
Gesicki finished with 10 kills to go with his seven blocks, Ficken had five kills and a block. Lee had four kills and three blocks, and Necamp led with five digs.
"I think the fact that we've been here before made a big difference today and during the whole tournament," King said. "We could see teams getting affected by the pressure, but we were unfazed by it because we're used to it.
"We came here convinced that we were going to win this. No one on this team even thought there was a possibility we could lose. Last year still hurts, but this feels pretty good."
After match point, fans tumbled out of the stands while players rejoiced before gathering for the championship ceremony.
Over in a corner, Lee broke down in tears.
"I was emotional because this means so much to me and the team," Lee said. "This was my last time playing in this gym (which is usually the site of the state final) and I didn't want to leave this place without that state title."
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