MONMOUTH JUNCTION - The Southern Regional High School boys volleyball team had to settle for second place this year.
The Rams fell just short in their quest for a third straight state championship Thursday, losing 25-17, 25-23 to Fair Lawn in the final at South Brunswick High School.
"Just getting back to this point (the state finals) for a third time in a row was a great accomplishment for this team," Southern coach Eric Maxwell said. "We certainly wanted to win it again but being the second-best team in the state isn't too shabby."
Fair Lawn (38-2), led by senior standouts Dan Nugent and Oren Zyndorf, won its first state title since 1995.
When the match was clinched, the Cutters celebrated on the court with a busload of fans by singing James Brown's "I Feel Good" and taking turns hoisting the trophy.
Southern (31-8-1) retreated to its locker room for a few minutes, but when the Rams re-emerged, they were greeted with an ovation from their own group of backers, many of whom wore black-and-gold face paint and black T-shirts.
"We didn't have a fan bus, but our fans were still behind us just like always," Rams freshman Mike Gesicki said. "They showed us love all season."
Buoyed by the support, the Rams delivered a valiant effort against a team that had beaten them twice earlier this season.
Fair Lawn entered the match as a heavy favorite, but Southern refused to wilt, even after falling behind 7-0 to start the second game.
"I don't know that we were favored," Fair Lawn coach Peter Zisa said. "Southern was the two-time state champions for a reason. A 7-0 lead would be a knockout for us against most teams, but not them. You could see their resiliency. They kept fighting hard and we were fortunate to come out with a win."
Nugent, who will be playing for Virginia Tech University's club team, was the difference. The 6-foot-2 outside hitter dominated the court, registering 18 kills, five digs, two blocks, two service points and an ace.
He seemed to have an answer for whatever Southern threw at him. When he wasn't spiking balls so hard they looked like they would leave a dent in the floor, Nugent was floating them into uncovered areas of the court.
"This has been our goal since the first practice this season," Nugent said. "It feels great to finally win the whole thing, I can't describe it, especially since we earned it against a great team like Southern.
"Even when we got out to that big lead in the second game, we knew they wouldn't fold. They kept fighting and kept throwing punches. But we just kept punching them back."
After falling behind 7-0, Maxwell called timeout, gathered the team around him and urged them to keep battling. The Rams responded by eventually forcing an 18-18 tie, but couldn't take the lead.
"I told the guys to play with Southern pride and to keep playing with heart," Maxwell said. "The one thing I knew about our guys was that they weren't going to quit. If we were going down, we were going to make (Fair Lawn) earn it. You don't win two state titles in a row without having that kind of heart."
The Rams intend on contending for another one next year.
They lose three seniors, including Logue, who is headed to Coastal Carolina, but Gesicki and junior Joe Niccoli are part of a talented group of returnees.
"Losing this one is going to leave a sour taste for a while," Maxwell said. "But they are already looking at me like they want to get back here and make another run at this next year."
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