By Mike Grenier
---- — LAWRENCE – Top-seeded Lawrence High was getting the surprise of its volleyball life in the Division 1 North final against St. John’s Prep here last night.
It wasn’t a good surprise. Lawrence hadn’t lost a single game in the postseason, blanking three straight opponents, but it was dominated by the Eagles, 25-18, in game one. The Lancers (23-1) looked confused and beatable.
“Yeah, and people think that when we lose like that, Lawrence doesn’t know how to come back,” admitted Lancers’ veteran coach Tony Hajjar.
“But I’ll tell you why we lost the first game and you can quote me on this – coach’s fault. I changed the lineup around. We’re playing St. John’s Prep (an extremely familiar rival) and I just changed things up, moving kids around. When we got to game two, I said, okay, we’re going back to the original lineup.”
The personnel didn’t really change for Lawrence, but the positioning by Hajjar did. And the Lancers, who were fired up on the floor and on the sidelines and who got some loud backing from a chanting, dancing crowd in the stands at Central Catholic, stormed back and pulled away from the Prep, 18-25, 25-18, 25-16, 25-11.
“That’s the best team we’ve played all year,” St. John’s Prep coach Scott Celli said after his second-seeded Eagles closed out the season at 20-4.
Eagles tri-captain Brian Keough, who drove Lawrence crazy with his powerful hitting in the early going, finished with 20 kills; senior tri-captain Sean Brennan had 33 assists and seven kills while senior tri-captain Zach Burt added nine kills.
However, Lawrence’s athleticism, confidence and experience more than offset all the good things St. John’s Prep did in game one.
Anibal Henriquez finished with 17 kills and Jason Henriquez chipped in 15 kills for the winners. Christian Mayi added 10 kills while setter Hiraldo Reibin, who played with superb skill and extraordinary composure, piled up 42 assists.
Even though Lawrence stole the momentum in game two, the Eagles had no reason to think they were going down the tubes anytime soon. It was 13-all in the middle of game three – a dead heat.
It was unquestionably the pivotal point in the match, and Lawrence was the team that promptly took ownership. The Lancers scored 12 of the next 15 points to take game three, 25-16, and then it jumped out to a 17-4 lead in game four. St. John’s wasn’t dispirited, but when you get outscored 29-7 in a key stretch like that, it’s going to take a miracle to come back. There were no miracles in the playbook.
“We were blocking everything in game one,” said Celli. “I mean, we were all over the net. After that? Well, it was partly us and partly them. They kept whaling the ball and when you don’t do a good job of blocking against a good hitting team it’s going to be a tough night. Lawrence started dictating all the points. Lack of defense cost us in the end.”
Lawrence is a flamboyant team and when the Lancers sensed the tide was turning, they turned it up a notch. They kept the ball alive on the long points and attacked viciously at the net. It was a lethal combination.
“I thought their outside hitters were phenomenal,” said Celli, referring to Anibal and Jeyson Henriquez, who were co-MVPs of the Merrimack Valley Conference. “We started making errors, but they were forced errors. Lawrence was better than us tonight and definitely deserved to win.”
Hajjar insisted that any strategical moves he employed were a secondary factor in the win.
“Spirit and attitude won this for us,” said the Lawrence coach. “Our kids just wanted it more.”
Lawrence will play Central sectional winner Milford in the state semifinals (day and time to be announced). As much as he would’ve loved to be part of an upset win last night, Keough made it clear where his rooting interest will be the rest of the way.
“I know those (Lawrence) kids,” he said. “I played with them all winter. They’re a really good team. Since it can’t be us, there’s no team I’d rather see win the (state championship) than them.”