The last two seasons, the only exciting thing about the path to the Division I boys’ volleyball final was the anticipation of getting to see the two best teams square off for the ultimate prize.
There was no actual drama leading up to the championship because it was always going to be Hendricken and South Kingstown. In 2011, Hendricken was 16-0, South was 14-2 and everybody else was irrelevant. In 2012, Hendricken was 15-1, South was 13-3 and nobody else was even in the picture.
A few other teams were strong – Coventry and Mount St. Charles last year, La Salle and North Kingstown the year before – but they were all unquestionably a notch below the top two.
That’s what makes this regular season so exciting, and will make the playoffs even more exciting. There is no clear cut No. 1, even if Coventry is undefeated right now. And, there’s no clear-cut No. 2, even if South Kingstown is the only team with one loss.
Instead, there are a handful of teams – maybe more – who should be in contention when the postseason begins. Sure there will be favorites and underdogs, but there will also be genuine uncertainty as to who will reach the last match of the season.
“I think there’s probably maybe five or six teams that are in the top group,” Coventry head coach Jonathan Bartlett said. “North, South, Mount, Hendricken, East Providence and us. And that’s just who I’ve seen so far.”
Division I split into two sub-divisions this season, and it looks like both sides will have their say before it’s all said and done.
In all, seven teams are above .500, and they’re beating each other up night-in and night-out.
“I think maybe the top three from the North, top three from the South, by the end they should have good, quality playoff matches,” Hendricken head coach Mike Harrington said.
Coventry leads the way with a 7-0 record in D-I-South and standout players in Frank Field and Devin Paiva, but the Oakers haven’t shown the type of dominance that should lead anyone to think they’re going to run away with a title. While they did beat Hendricken 3-0 on Tuesday, they barely escaped an upset bid from Mount St. Charles last Thursday, winning 3-2, including a 15-13 victory in the deciding fifth game.
“Mount St. Charles gave us a huge run for our money,” Bartlett said. “They’re probably the most solid passing team in our league. They didn’t let anything hit the floor.”
But the Mounties are hardly pre-destined for the finals either. At 5-2 in D-I-North they’re in good shape, but they’ve also suffered a 3-2 loss at the hands of Hendricken, a match that the Hawks barely pulled out with a 15-12 win in the fifth.
Mount could easily be 7-0. Instead, it’s a victim of D-I’s depth, but still one of the many teams that could make a run.
South Kingstown, the defending state champs, is another team with championship potential, boasting outside hitter Ryan Casci and a slew of other talented players. The Rebels are 6-1, as their only blemish is a 3-1 loss to Coventry.
Yet, Harrington thinks they’re probably the team to beat.
“If you want me to rank them, I think South looked a little more dominating at times,” Harrington said. “Different styles, so I don’t know.”
Then there’s North Kingstown and East Providence, a pair of 5-2 teams. North Kingstown has a win over East Providence, while the Townies have a win over Hendricken on their resume, and also some championship-caliber pieces.
“They have defense,” Bartlett said of EP. “They have quite a few huge guys at the net. I’m sure come playoff season it’s going to be tough hitting around them.”
The bottom line is that everyone is beating up on everyone, with each of the top six teams holding at least one win over another top six team as proof that no one is running away from the pack.
And then there’s Cranston East, a team that is on the bubble of contention at 4-3, but without any quality wins. The ’Bolts do, however, have some quality losses. They were edged 3-2 by Hendricken, and lost a tight 3-1 match with East Providence.
“We still haven’t seen Cranston East, and from what I understand, they’re very solid,” Bartlett said.
It’s a mess at the top of Division I, and that’s a good thing. Seven teams are 4-3 or better, and for the first time since 2010, we won’t have to wait until the finals to have a little uncertainty.
Everyone’s got a chance.
“We’ll see,” Harrington said. “We need to get better.”
Kevin Pomeroy is the assistant sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at 732-3100 and firstname.lastname@example.org.