Over the course of an action-packed two days for the Saint Ignatius volleyball program, Sullivan Gym was rocking.
Fans packed into the stands for two days of fun volleyball against two strong teams.
The Volleyball Cats split the two matches, rolling past Villa Angela-St. Joseph on Friday (25-20, 25-16, 25-19) and falling to Hilliard Darby (19-25, 20-25, 27-25, 22-25). The court's competition was well worth the price of admission.
"The energy was great. The crowd helped. It's always good to play in front of a crowd, because we don't always, but we will at States," Head Coach Jacob Layden said on Saturday afternoon. "I thought the energy really helped us perform as best as we can. Being able to perform in loud situations is important for us. Our ability to step up to the energy level was huge."
The fun started with a friendly rivalry on Friday, as the Wildcats welcomed the Vikings. The two schools have been rivals for a long time, most notably the heated hardwood feuds in the 1980's. The volleyball rivalry is tamer nowadays, as many players on the teams know each other from grade school days at Our Lady of the Lake in Euclid.
VASJ stormed out of the gates in the first set, showing no sign of nervousness. The Vikings jetted out to an 11-8 lead before the hosts climbed out of the hole and took control of the set with a 10-2 run. An Andrew Boeckman ace led to a VASJ timeout with the Wildcats ahead 18-13. Key kills by Phil Catanzaro and Boeckman down the stretch, along with an Alex Heath block, cemented a 25-20 conquest in the opener.
The Vikings started strong again in the second stanza, to the tune of a 9-5 lead. Strong play at the net by Boeckman, Catanzaro, and Vince Holzheimer catapulted the Wildcats out of the funk with another 10-2 run, leading to a VASJ timeout at 15-11 Cats. Kills by Catanzaro, Boeckman and Heath, along with a Matthew Rogers ace, led to another VASJ timeout at 20-13. Despite a couple of errors along the way, the Wildcats finished off the Vikings, 25-16.
The third set started better for the Wildcats, with Heath providing a surge of energy with a kill to set the hosts ahead at 10-6. Back-to-back kills by Teddy Koncelik and then Boeckman kept the Wildcats speeding ahead, with Aidan Monroe hitting the gas on an ace. Trailing 17-10, VASJ burned a timeout. The Wildcats increased the lead to 21-12, but a 4-0 VASJ run provided a speedbump. But down the stretch, Catanzaro, Koncelik, Heath, and Boeckman all supplied points to bury the chances of a comeback at 25-19.
Over the course of the contest, Catanzaro led the way with 10 kills, supplementing his stats with 7 digs. Koncelik followed closely with 7 kills, adding 6 digs and 2 aces. Holzheimer finished as the player of the game with 29 assists, 9 digs, 2 kills, and 2 blocks against many of his former CYO teammates.
"I have a bunch of my friends on that team, so we were doing a little bit of business, but we took care of business out there," Holzheimer said with a smile. "I was trying to do my best to hit the ball up and find our hitters, balls they can hit well."
On Saturday, Sullivan Gym rocked with a raucous varsity contest between the No. 1 ranked team in the state in Hilliard Darby and the No. 9 Wildcats.
The Volleyball Cats proved they belong on the court with the Panthers. The Wildcats' confidence certainly grew over the course of the match. If the Wildcats cut down on errors, this team could certainly challenge the best of the best at the state tournament in June.
Darby controlled the early goings of the first set. The Panthers used several strong kills and Saint Ignatius errors to build a 10-6 lead. Then the upstart Cats fired out to a 5-0 charge, powered by great services by Holzheimer. The Panthers, trailing for the first time, opted for a timeout. The tactic worked, as Darby adjusted and never trailed again. The Wildcats tied it at 13 and then 17, thanks to Boeckman and Koncelik kills. But Darby raced ahead from there, empowered by four errors by the Wildcats. Behind 22-18, the Wildcats took a timeout, but Darby won three of the next four points to win, 25-19.
The second stanza started evenly, with the squads dividing the first 14 points evenly. The two teams traded jabs, with neither team leading by more than two until two Darby kills hurt the Wildcats. Down 18-14, the Wildcats regrouped. The hosts played evenly with the Panthers down the stretch, trading point for point. Eventually, the Wildcats ran out of rope to make a comeback, falling 25-20.
On the ropes, the Wildcats looked to avoid a sweep in the third set. And by sheer force of will, the Wildcats did just that.
At the start of the third, neither team could generate much momentum. The Wildcats tallied a 3-0 run very early, but for much of the set, neither team scored more than two in a row. The teams stood deadlocked at 15 as Holzheimer and Catanzaro powered ahead with big plays at the net. But then Darby tore off a 6-1 run in a seemingly similar repeat of the second set. But the tides soon turned, as Catanzaro, Boeckman, and Eric Larsen all provided critical plays. Incredible volleys led to the Wildcats finally tying the contest at 23, thanks to a 7-2 charge. A kill by Darby seemed to take the air out of the place, as the Wildcats stared into the deep at 24-23. But a clutch Larsen tip pulled the Cats away from the brink. A Boeckman ace gave the Wildcats a chance to win, but a Darby kill tied it at 25. Catanzaro responded with a kill of his own for a chance to win the set.
Enter James Thoma.
A short sophomore, Thoma has emerged this season as a dynamo server (with a legendary bow and arrow celebration). Thoma took the line with a smile as a significant delay ensued over a scoring/substitution issue. Thoma was not phased by the delay, joking that 'They're trying to ice me, it's not going to work,' as if he were an NFL kicker. When play resumed, Thoma delivered a spot-on serve. Darby responded, sending a kill attempt that Boeckman dug out. Koncelik set it perfectly for Boeckman, who rocketed it off the tips of the Darby hitters and out of play for a 27-25 win.
The win gave the Wildcats an obvious confidence. Entering the match, Darby had lost just two sets to Ohio foes all season – one to Elder and one to Hilliard Bradley. Beating the most talented team in the state can do wonders for you.
The fourth set proved to be a dogfight, as the juggernauts traded lengthy volleys and points, battling for every point. The clubs split the first 24 points at 12 apiece in a great start. Then the Panthers won three points in a row to advance to 15-12, leading to a Saint Ignatius timeout. Blocks and kills by Catanzaro and Koncelik helped the Wildcats climb out of the hole and tie it at 19. Three combined kills by Boeckman and Koncelik knotted the score at 22, leading to a Darby timeout.
Back-to-back-to-back errors by the Wildcats ended the marathon match in favor of the Panthers, as the hosts ran out of gas. Darby walked out of the gym with a 3-1 win, but the Wildcats walked away with a newfound sense of confidence that they can battle tit-for-tat with the best team in the state.
"Even though we had such a hard loss, [Darby] is such a good program and a team. We put in our biggest effort and we were right there with them every ball," said Boeckman. "The only thing that set us down was our missed serves. We know after this game that at states, we can really beat them where it matters."
Overall, Layden was impressed with his team's effort and execution.
"Last night was great. VASJ is a super athletic team," said Layden. "It was good to put some things together. It carried over into today. Playing Darby, by far the best team in the state, talent-wise, we played well. We executed at about 90-95% rate. We could execute better, and when we do, we put pressure on them. I was pretty happy with last night and tonight."
Moving forward, the Wildcats' top focus is simple.
Serving, serving, serving.
"We weren't good enough at the service line to continually put pressure on Darby," Layden said. "We talk about that a lot in practice. To be an elite team, you have to be a good or a great serving team. You can't be an okay serving team and expect to win States. That was my message for the boys after and they know that. They're working on that, they just have to find some consistency."
Looking ahead, the Wildcats will have a chance to keep improving on Thursday, as the Volleyball Cats host Massillon Jackson.
JV Cats sweep
In an impressive show of strength, the Wildcats' JV squad produced three wins this weekend.
The Wildcats downed VASJ on Friday in two sets, 25-17, 25-22. Then on Saturday, the Wildcats split into two games and won both. The "JV B" squad won in straight sets, 25-18, 25-12. The "JV A" game provided more excitement, as it took three sets. The Wildcats won set one, 25-22, before dropping the second, 25-18. The third set was one for the ages. In a battle of titans, the Wildcats upended the Panthers after a lengthy battle, in a 32-30 conquest. The final set definitely paved the way for the exciting varsity contest.
Credit to Anne Kent and the JV staff on a great weekend, as the JV Cats now stand at 12-1 on the season.