SOUTH BRUNSWICK — The Southern Regional High School boys volleyball team allowed itself to enjoy a subdued celebration Tuesday.
The Rams exchanged a few hugs and high fives after beating rival Fair Lawn 2-0 (25-22, 25-14) in the state semifinals at South Brunswick High School, but they won’t be happy unless they come back to South Brunswick and beat St. Joseph-Metuchen in the state final at 5 p.m. Thursday.
“Losing (in the state finals) two years in a row didn’t sit well with us,” Southern senior middle Mike Gesicki said. “It’s nice to win, but we’re nowhere near satisfied, yet. We’ve got one more to win.”
The Rams (35-4) did get a measure of joy from beating Fair Lawn, however.
The Cutters (34-7) had not only won the last two state championships at Southern’s expense, they also handed them one of their defeats this season in Southern’s own gym on April 13.
“They are a great program, but they made a big deal out of beating us in our place and that stuck with us,” Gesicki said. “We told them to go ahead and have their fun in April, but we’ll be there in June.”
Tuesday’s victory marked the third time the Rams have beaten the Cutters this season since that loss.
The teams traded points early in the first game before Southern took the lead for good at 6-5. The Rams stretched it to 19-13 before Fair Lawn earned four straight points behind Penn State University-bound senior outside Chris Nugent to cut the gap to 19-17 while the Cutters fans roared.
But Southern quickly regained command and earned a four-point win.
“We have so much respect for that team and especially Chris Nugent,” Southern coach Eric Maxwell said. “We gained the upper hand, but we were scared the whole time because we know that no lead is big enough with him on the floor.”
The Rams didn’t have anything to fear in the second game.
They scored the first four points behind senior outside hitter Brandon Lee and were never seriously threatened. Lee, senior middle Kyle Ficken and Gesicki repeatedly came through with big plays as the Rams fans cheered.
Gesicki finished with a game-high 11 kills and three blocks. Senior setter Luke King had 24 assists and six digs. Lee added eight kills, Ficken had seven and senior Jake Necamp posted 11 digs.
“Give the credit to Southern,” Nugent said. “They are a great team. They played with a lot of energy and we just didn’t respond. A lot of this is on us because we weren’t as mentally tough as we should have been.”
The Rams were especially strong physically, mentally and emotionally, thanks to Maxwell and his assistant coaches.
As the season progressed, the coaches have been stressing the importance of gradually building confidence and increasing their focus to peak for the state playoffs.
“As the season has gone on, these guys have gotten hungrier,” Maxwell said. “They are just playing with more resolve and with extra energy and enthusiasm. The team chemistry is definitely getting stronger now. The guys have really bonded and it’s showing.”
The Rams will need to deliver a similar effort on Thursday against St. Joseph-Metuchen. The Falcons, who entered the tournament as the top seed, defeated Livingston 2-0 (26-24, 25-16) in Tuesday’s other semifinal.
Southern and St. Joseph-Metuchen (41-4) split their two meetings this season, with the Rams beating them last month in the Super Six tournament. Southern is in the title game for the fifth straight year and is going for its third title after winning back-to-back crowns in 2009-10.
“Everybody is in this 100 percent both physically and mentally,” Ficken said. “And we’re going to stay that way. As long as everybody is playing our game, no one is beating us.”
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