By Randy Whalen
Special to Illprepvb.com
Brother Rice wasn’t going down without a fight. In the end, the Crusaders didn’t go down at all.
Senior outside hitters Tom Phelan and Kyle Springer made sure their season continued as they helped rally the host Crusaders to a 25-19, 19-25, 25-23 victory over Marist in a neighborhood battle before a large crowd on Friday in the second semifinal of the Brother Rice Sectional.
Brother Rice (30-8) will face a familiar foe, Lincoln-Way East – a 25-13, 25-19 winner over Lockport Township in the opening semifinal, on Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. The time was moved up because of Lincoln-Way East’s graduation. It will be the fifth meeting of the season between the pair of powerhouses. The Griffins won the first three, but Brother Rice won the most recent one.
Marist (33-5) had split two meetings with the Crusaders during the season. The most recent of those was a 28-26, 25-20 RedHawk win on May 14 at Brother Rice. But this time, despite a match-high 22 kills from Marist junior outside hitter Marty Jepsen, the Crusaders rallied from numerous 6-point deficits in the deciding set to pull off the victory.
“It’s all the kids,” Brother Rice coach Dan Dwyer said. “We didn’t get too high, we didn’t get too low. The kids just stayed steady and focused.”
Especially down the stretch. The RedHawks had opened the deciding set by jumping out to leads of 4-0 and 8-2. They still led 16-10, their sixth 6-point advantage of the set, when Brother Rice started chipping away. A block by Phelan capped a 5-1 run brought the Crusaders within 17-15.
“To get a block on him is one of the best feelings,” Phelan said of a matchup with Jepsen. “We have a really balanced offensive team. We knew we could come back and we pulled through.”
Phelan finished with 13 kills while Springer had 18 kills.
“A matchup that made a difference was putting Tom Phelan on Jepsen,” Dwyer said. “Tommy has been the heart and soul of this team. He’s been a leader on the court and mentored our young kids.”
Marist still led 21-18 and 22-20 following a block by junior right side hitter Millan Patel. But a tip kill from junior outside hitter Pat McAuliffe and a kill by Phelan knotted the score for the first time at 22-22.
Sophomore outside hitter Jake Bonnett banged a kill to give the RedHawks a 23-22 advantage. Back came the Crusaders, however, as Springer and Phelan smashed kills. Then, on match-point, a Jepsen hit sailed just long and the Brother Rice hopes for a second straight trip to state lived on.
“Marty is a great player, he’s amazing,” Springer said. “But we didn’t want to lose. Most of our guys are seniors and we want to go to state. I felt nervous (in the third set), but once we start going, we keep going on and on.”
Two other seniors – setter Matt O’Donnell (38 assists) and libero Tom Kleist (22 digs) also contributed for the Crusaders.
Senior middle hitter Patrick Mahoney (10 kills, 3 blocks), senior libero Brady Mack (16 digs), and junior setter Rocky Mayer (42 assists, 3 blocks) were also big for Marist.
Leading 19-18 in the opening set, Brother Rice closed it out with a 6-1 run. Springer had a trio of kills in the spurt and senior middle hitter Dan Littleton had the set winner. With the score tied at 6-6 in the second set, the RedHawks had an 8-2 burst to take control. Jepsen had three kills and senior setter Marty Sullivan contributed an ace in the run. The Crusaders never got closer than 4 points the rest of the way.
“It didn’t matter what the score was, we’re so evenly matched that we certainly never thought it was over,” Marist coach Jordan Vidovic said of the third set. “But when you’re up like that and things turn it gives them a little glimmer of hope. They (the Crusaders) started free swinging and they got it.
“It was just an awesome season to have with these guys. They are one of the best groups, boys or girls, we ever had here at Marist. The only disappointing thing is now I don’t get to see them at practice.”
Despite not having one of its top players, Lincoln-Way East won rather convincingly in the opening semifinal. Senior middle hitter Mike Herlihy is likely out for the rest of the season after having stitches from the palm up in his left hand.
In his place, the Griffins (35-3) got a balnced attack from junior middle hitter Wil McPhillips (6 kills, 2 blocks), senior outside hitters Mark Wroblewski (6 kills) and Ian Piet (5 kills), along with senior right side hitter George Kougan (5 kills, 2 blocks).
After cruising in the opener, Lincoln-Way East found itself down 14-8 and 18-14 in the second set. But the Griffins went on a 10-0 blitz to take control. Junior libero Danny Pacini had one ace in his service run and the Porters added the cause with four hitting errors. Senior opposite side hitter/setter Anthony Pfeiffer saved one match point and ended the run with a kill. But Piet pounded a kill moments later to end it.
Pfeiffer, a four-year starter, led Lockport (26-12) with 7 kills and added 5 assists. Senior outside hitter Kyle Dixon (5 kills) also contributed for the Porters, who were playing in a sectional for the first time since 2004.