It was only one game. The Pilgrim volleyball team still had to win two more.
But when the Patriots roared to a 9-1 lead and a 25-11 victory in game one of Thursday’s Division II championship against Barrington, they knew exactly where they were headed.
“It built our confidence,” said senior setter Jason Ferguson. “We knew coming in we could beat anybody, and when we did that, we really believed we could beat them.”
And they didn’t leave any doubt.
After the game-one runaway, the Eagles made the next two games closer, but it seemed like they were chasing all night. The Pats were a step ahead and they stayed in control the whole way, winning game two 25-20 and game three 25-21 to capture the first boys’ volleyball championship in school history.
When it was over, the Pats went wild, jumping, yelling, hugging and celebrating with a big crowd of Pilgrim supporters. The scene was the perfect ending to a perfect season for the Pats, who went 18-0.
“I couldn’t have pictured anything better,” said senior Sean St. Jacques. “I went into the season with the mentality of leaving with nothing less than a state championship. Knowing that’s exactly what we did is just indescribable. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”
Both teams came into the title match with perfect records, but the Pats had a plan for getting an edge. They tweaked their defense to counter Barrington’s power, and they focused all week on starting strong, something they didn’t always do this season.
It couldn’t have gone better.
With the score 1-1 in the first game, Pilgrim won the next eight points. John Zuffoletti peppered the Eagles with tough serve after tough serve, picking up an ace along the way, and St. Jacques came up with two blocks and a kill.
With every point, the Pilgrim crowd got louder, and a little bit of momentum turned into a tidal wave.
“It was execution, and there was no nervousness whatsoever,” said head coach Mike McGiveron. “We were ready. I knew these guys were ready. I saw them around 3 o’clock today and you wouldn’t know what game they were about to play in. I think that helped us out. We’ve never been here. It’s all brand new.”
Barrington took a timeout at 9-1 but never got back into the game. St. Jacques and Dan Colabella teamed up for a block, and Colabella put down a kill to make it 12-3. After the Eagles made it 13-5, a kill by Zuffoletti touched off another run. The Pats won seven of the next eight points to take a commanding 20-6 lead. They coasted to the 25-11 victory, finishing it with an ace by St. Jacques.
“We had to come out very focused,” Ferguson said. “We knew this was going to be a tough match so we wanted to come out really strong. Sometimes, we dig ourselves in a hole then we have to dig ourselves out. We really focused this week on starting strong and never giving up, and that’s exactly what we did.”
And the Eagles didn’t know what hit them. It wasn’t just that the Pats came flying out of the gates; they also had that plan for stopping the Eagles.
It was working.
“We switched up our defense,” McGiveron said. “We know they’re a power team. They set the ball really high in the air, and they’re not really adept at running short sets. These past two days, all we did was run a special defense where we made sure we double-blocked the middle and just got to everything else.”
Even though the Eagles regrouped after game one, they never seemed to find their rhythm. They took a 1-0 lead in game two, gave up the next six points and never led again in that game. Zuffoletti had two aces and St. Jacques had a kill to power the early surge.
Barrington eventually got within one at 19-18, but the Pats won the next three points on two errors and a kill by McCabe. Zuffoletti had a kill to make it 23-19. After a Barrington kill, the Pats won the next two points on a service error and a serve by St. Jacques that the Eagles couldn’t return.
“We employed this defense and it really took them off what they were trying to do,” McGiveron said. “If we could pass the ball and effectively play the defense the way we wanted to, I felt like there wasn’t a chance for them.”
Barrington jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the third game, but again the Pats came back quickly, winning the next five points on blocks by Ferguson and McCabe and three Barrington errors.
On the last of those points, McCabe went down with an ankle injury and had to leave the game. Sophomore Phil Nemirow took his spot in the lineup, and the Pats stayed strong. Barrington tied the game six times, but the Pats never let them get the lead.
And pretty soon, they were pulling away.
A kill by Christian White broke a 15-15 tie, and the Eagles never tied the game again. St. Jacques followed with a kill, and the Pats won four of the next five points on an error, kills by White and St. Jacques and a perfect push to the back corner by Tilden Thao.
All of a sudden, the Pats led 21-16, and they weren’t about to stop there. After a Barrington point, St. Jacques slammed down a kill to make it 22-17. The Eagles won the next two, before St. Jacques picked up another kill to make it 23-19. After a service error, Dan Colabella delivered a kill in the middle to give Pilgrim match point.
Barrington staved it off by winning the next point, but the Pats were undeterred. They received the next serve without trouble and sent a perfect pass to Ferguson on the right side. He lofted a high set for Zuffoletti on the far left, and the senior smacked a kill off the block and out of bounds on the Barrington side to clinch the championship.
“I didn’t believe it at first,” Zuffoletti said. “It was a good set and I knew I had it. When I saw it drop, I was like ‘Oh my God, did that really just happen?’ It was crazy. It just capped off the season perfectly. I’m speechless.”
As the celebration died down, the Pats could reflect. Had they just played their best match?
“We did,” McGiveron said. “It’s hard to look back and say that for sure, but we just came into a championship and we didn’t really give them a shot. I don’t think we’ve had a 25-11 game all year. It’s crazy.”
St. Jacques led the Pilgrim attack with 18 kills and eight blocks. Zuffoletti had 13 kills and 10 digs, McCabe had 12 kills and four blocks and Ferguson tallied 40 assists. The Pats also got key contributions from Colabella, White, Nemirow, Thao and Chris Fitta. Bench players Alec Labitt and Joshua Salinger were also big parts of the team.
In the end, all those players had a hand in what turned out to be the best season in Pilgrim boys’ volleyball history. The Pats haven’t had a losing season since 1999 but they had never been to a championship match.
The title is also the first of any kind for the school since the softball team won in 2003.
“Our expectations were pretty high because we had a good season last year,” Zuffoletti said. “We had a couple of first-year players who came out strong. They practiced hard the first couple of weeks and they really got a lot better. After the first couple of weeks, we really started clicking as a team. We knew it would be a great season. I don’t think any of us could have guessed an undefeated season and a sweep in the finals.”