MILFORD, Mass. – While Milford volleyball has enjoyed plenty of success as a program, this year’s roster is loaded with juniors (there are only three seniors on the team) that have little tournament experience and the Hawks looked like a team that was learning on the fly on Thursday night in the playoff opener against Burncoat (Worcester).
The visiting Patriots took advantage of Milford’s mistakes to win the first set, but the Hawks bounced back, settled down, and took control to win the final three sets and earn the 3-1 (23-25, 25-9, 25-16, 25-14) victory that sends them into the Central quarterfinal.
“I was counting after the first set and three or four of them may have played in one playoff match before in their life,” said MIlford coach Andrew Mainini. “You could see it on their faces. They lost their cool at times, on one another, on themselves, on me and after the first set I had to say to them, relax. This is par for the course.”
The first set was a grind for the hosts, who entered the playoffs as the No. 5 seed. Milford held a 9-6 lead but neither team had a lot of big hits or strong rallies, and it only got more difficult for the Hawks, who hit a shot long, one into the net, had a carry violation to fall behind. After a kill by Zach Browne tied the set at 18-18, the teams traded four straight serves out of play.
Milford then committed two violations on passes and one at the net to give Burncoat a late lead. The Hawks fought back to tie it at 23-23, only to have a shot into the net and then another hit go wide to put to the No. 12 seed Patriots in front in the match.
Mainini said, “I think they may have underestimated their opponents. They don’t know them. I think it was a learning curve in the middle of the match that when the postseason comes anyone can win and every team that makes it is good.”
The second set started in similar fashion to the first with Burncoat down just one after a Milford hit into the net made it 8-7. A violation on the Patriots got the Hawks back the serve and they turned to junior Tiago Carvalho. By the time Carvalho gave the serve back, Milford was only a point away from winning the set.
“Tiago deserves a lot of credit for going in there and taking control of the match,” Mainini said. “He served aggressively at a point when the match was tight and we were down a set already. He was mentally tough and reset the tone of the match.”
The Hawks won 16 straight points by keeping the ball in play, putting the pressure on the Patriots to not make mistakes. Two shots into the net and one that went long gave Milford momentum and the hitters started to get into the game. Josh Orellana had one kill, Browne had three in a row, and Andre Oliveira (one of the team’s seniors) smashed a shot through the defense for a 18-7 lead.
An ace from Carvalho and a pair of kills by Browne kept the pressure on and, after Burncoat won two straight points to delay the inevitable, Browne rocketed another kill, his seventh of the set, to tie the match.
In the third set, Milford started to look shaky again, struggling to keep the ball in play at times. Burncoat held a 15-13 lead and the home fans were getting a little restless when Mainini called timeout.
“I pulled them off the court and told them we need to focus on each point and not on the big picture,” he explained. “I also focused a lot on our blocking because a lot of hits were coming down between us and the net and we weren’t giving ourselves a chance to play the ball or score a point.”
The timeout turned the momentum of the match and Milford won 12 of the next 13 points to close out the set and take control. Joao Boaventura and senior Chris Rivera both had kills to get things going and two more kills by Boaventura put the Hawks on the brink. Tiago Filadelfo closed out the set with a block and, after an error by Burncoat, smashing a kill down the line.
The third set was all Milford, as the home team and higher seed looked completely comfortable for the first time in the match. This was more like the way the Hawks had played during its strong closing stretch of the regular season, where they won nine in a row before close, hard-fought losses to two unbeatens, Taunton and Agawam.
“I thought we were hitting our stride,” said Mainini of the late-season run that earned the Hawks a share of the league title. “Even in those two losses, we were banging balls back and forth, there was great defense, and I have to give it to Burncoat that they played great defense and hit really well in the first set, but we really did the opposite.”
Boaventura had three kills in the final set, Browne had a pair, and Orellana had a kill and back-to-back aces with the set in control. Browne closed the match with a kill and the Hawks looked like they had their confidence back.
Mainini said, “The competition isn’t going to be any easier as we go on and I think they’re going to be re-focused at practice tomorrow and Monday and I think they’re going to open that next set really focused on not repeating what happened the first time.”
Milford (15-5) will await the winner of No. 4 Assabet Valley and No. 13 Medfield on Tuesday. If Medfield wins, then the Hawks will host the second round game.