MILFORD, Mass. – The heavy duty fans at the end of each bench were doing little to combat the heat in the gym, but for second-seed Milford the bigger issue in Monday evening’s Central quarterfinal was the defense being played by 10-seed King Philip.
During the regular season, the Hawks swept both meetings with the Warriors but KP was buoyed by its road win over Nipmuc in the opening round and was set on frustrating Milford, extending plays as often as possible. In the end, Milford’s offense, led by star hitter Felipe Guerra and junior middle Chris Tocci, had enough firepower to pull out a 3-1 (25-18, 21-25, 25-17, 25-13) win.
“I thought our first 10 points or so of the match were really good and I was hyped and then it kind slowed down,” said Milford coach Andrew Mainini. “The instant excitement of a playoff match wore off quick and I think with the heat they were tired and unfocused. That caught up to us, but I think we rebounded after that.”
KP coach Emily Tkowski said of the Warriors’ improvements in playoffs, “The communication has been a lot better. Things just kind of fell into place for us. Our outside hitters really dominated [against Nipmuc]. Today they didn’t have much of a performance, our passes weren’t really there to get them to the outside, but they were a huge help for us.”
Early in the opening set, it looked like the pattern of play from the regular season was going to continue. Milford jumped out to a 9-4 lead with Guerra getting an early kill and ace and two kills from Julio DaSilva. After Guerra smashed a hit from the back row and Tocci hung in the air for a kill in the middle, Milford seemed to have things in control, but KP was not going to go quietly.
Hits on the outside by Josh Saintilus and Thomas Beck got the Warriors back into the first set, pulling as close as 18-15. KP took advantage of a mishit to close the gap again to 22-18, but Milford found a little rhythm with setter Valdir Aragoso feeding Tocci for a kill and then picking the right pass for a blast by Guerra. DaSilva closed the first with an ace.
The KP defense seemed to pick up with the start of the second set. Libero Billy Hessler and setter Aidan Lindmark led the way on the back line, but all of the players stepped up to extend plays and put pressure on the Hawks to make the perfect pass and perfect hit to get points.
“My libero really stepped up these past few games,” Tkowski said of Hessler. “He’s gotten so much better this season where he really tries to get a touch on every ball no matter how hard it’s hit.”
She added, “I wish we weren’t playing defense so much and we didn’t have to be so scrappy. I felt like we were always trying to come back from behind and that’s a hard way to play.”
Jeremy White had back-to-back kills to put KP up 7-6, but Tocci sparked an 8-0 run that had Milford up 15-10 and seemingly on the brink of taking control of the match. KP kept fighting back. Two swings from Beck and one from Nick Basile got the Warriors within one. An ace by by Beck tied things up at 16-16.
After Milford libero Jose Nugra chased down a ball to set up a Guerra kill, the Hawks took an 18-17 lead, but KP rattled off three straight points to regain the advantage. A Guerra ace had Milford up 21-20. Yet again, KP rallied with five straight points, all on Milford errors, to even the match at one set apiece.
“Their defense in that second and third set was crazy,” Mainini said. “They got a hand on everything we were hitting. It wasn’t always a perfect pass but they were to back each other up.”
KP had momentum heading into the third set and Milford looked increasingly frustrated. Saintilus had a kill and an ace, as the Warriors took an early lead, but Guerra crushed a kill right into the body of Hessler that got the bench fired up.
While the hitting drew the biggest cheers, it was a strong service game that turned the match around for the Hawks. Junior Oscar Orellana took over with Milford up 11-8 and he served seven straight points, including three aces, to push it to a double-digit lead. Saintilus scored from the back line and Carson Mitteness had a block to try and stem the tide, but Orellana’s run had flipped the momentum of the match and KP never really recovered.
Guerra picked the line with a kill and then snuck a serve in the back corner to close out the third set and put Milford on the brink of a spot in the semis. After his performance in the third, Orellana got the ball to start the fourth and got Milford out to a 5-0 lead.
“His serve wasn’t overpowering but he was just hitting open spots and spots where there was some confusion,” Mainini said. “He totally got us a big lead in that third set, which was crucial.” About starting with Orellana at the service line in the fourth set, Mainini added, “It’s actually not what we usually do but after that third set we couldn’t switch it up from there.”
The Hawks wouldn’t pass up the chance to put the Warriors away. Milford never let KP get any run together in the fourth, Tocci going back-to-back on kills to make it 17-6 and then going back and forth with Guerra to push Milford to a 23-10 lead.
“Consistency is the name of game,” Mainini explained. “If your passing isn’t there, then nothing else is consistent. Ours was a little spotty. Chris played a pivotal role for us because if the passing was off he followed the setter and kept the ball in play strategically. Having them (Chris and Felipe) in tandem was really big for us today. “
Tkowski said, “I was really hoping when we won that second one we could carry through with the momentum but Milford’s really a great team and they really turned it on.”
Milford (16-3) will host six-seed Wachusett on Wednesday evening in the Central semifinal. It is Milford’s third straight semifinal appearance. The Hawks are trying to get to the final for the first time since winning back-to-back sectional titles in 2012 and 2013.
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