South Jersey Champ Southern Falls Short of State Boys Volleyball Final

Ends 10-Year Run in Title Game
By DAVID BIGGY | Jun 05, 2019
Photo by: David Biggy Southern Regional hitter Zach Hem delivers a kill during the first game of the Rams’ 25-14, 25-16 victory over Sterling to capture the NJSIAA South Jersey championship on May 31.

Stafford Township — For the past 10 years, the Southern Regional High School boys volleyball team has had to go through several obstacles on the way to the NJSIAA state championship match. This spring, the Rams had to endure the first six weeks without senior hitter Zach Hem. On May 31, Sterling High School stood in the way of a 10th straight South Jersey sectional title.

“It’s expected for us to get to the state championship, and this was just another roadblock in the way,” said senior setter Matt Maxwell after the Rams cruised past the Silver Knights, 25-14, 25-16. “But that’s the way it is every year. Sterling is a great team, and we just played our butts off because we wanted to show which was the best team.”

However, second-seeded Sterling – at least, at the outset of the match – appeared as if it were going to make the top-seeded Rams sweat a little. Six points into the contest, it was 3-3, and the Knights were hitting the ball well against Southern’s defense. The first game didn’t remain tight for long, as Southern scored on a few Sterling errors and Hem and junior Justin Kean banged down a couple of kills to make it 10-7.

“It’s a mental game,” Maxwell said. “But we’ve been in this match 10 years in a row. We know what’s going on and had a lot of guys with experience in this match. And they didn’t have that. So we had the mental advantage. Of course, there’s going to be pressure. But we live for the pressure. We love playing in the games with the pressure, and we rise up when it’s on.”

After Hem hammered a shot down the left line to make it 15-9, things quickly got away from Sterling. Several hitting or passing errors put the Rams in the driver’s seat as they ticked up the score to 20-14. Following one of Logan Lipositz’s three aces, Southern tallied the next four points to put the pressure on Sterling to either stay in the match or be eliminated.

The Knights started strong in the second game as well, taking a 6-3 lead after several Southern mistakes. But again the Rams turned up the dial and quickly turned the momentum around, scoring five straight points to go up, 8-6. After the Knights (26-3) knotted the score at 9-9, a serve out of bounds by Sterling gave the Rams the lead they never relinquished.

With Hem serving, Southern scored four straight points to push the margin to five, 14-9, before a block by Kean and a kill from senior Anthony LeBlanc helped inch the Rams closer to victory. After taking a 20-14 advantage, Southern scored four of the next six points, including an ace by junior Jack Healy to make it 24-16. Maxwell delivered the final point with a kill to the middle of the court.

Hem finished with seven kills, while Kean delivered four kills, a trio of blocks, a pair of digs and an ace, and Maxwell gave out 14 assists and mustered seven digs. Lipositz had seven digs, and senior Drew Wilgus banged down two kills and registered four blocks.

“We’re definitely a better team when we’re all healthy and in the lineup,” said Hem, discussing his return to the court and its impact for the team during recent weeks. “But we have a lot of great players on this team, and even if I wasn’t able to play, these guys would be up to whatever task in front of them. We just go out there and play our best, no matter who we’re playing.”

In 2009, the Rams won their first state championship – a year before the NJSIAA broke the state volleyball tourney into sections and instituted the state semifinals, played by the four sectional winners, and final. Southern was in the state final every year since, winning five of those times.

“I’ve been fortunate to be on this team for four years, playing with a lot of great players,” Maxwell said. “This year, I’m with the buddies I’ve grown up with, so it’s awesome.”

The Rams (38-3) played a familiar foe on Tuesday, June 4, as they sought to continue their quest for state title No. 7. Unfortunately, North I champion Fair Lawn – which had accounted for Southern’s only two losses heading into the state semifinals – fought from behind to win the playoff match 20-25, 25-16, 25-20,  ending the Rams’ string of 10 consecutive trips to the state final.

biggy@thesandpaper.net

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