MILFORD, Mass. – No offense to the teams that played earlier in the afternoon, but the nightcap felt like the final. From the atmosphere in the gym to the intensity of play on the floor to the ebb and flow of emotions on both sides of the net, Milford and Natick showed why they are both considered among the top teams in the state.
After falling behind in Friday night’s Central semifinal on its home court, Milford (20-4) rallied with its strongest game of the day to force a decisive fifth set. The hosts led 11-10 in the fifth only to have Natick score the final five points of the match to secure the 3-2 (25-17, 23-25, 25-21, 20-25, 15-11) victory.
“My biggest fear tonight was coming in and getting overwhelmed by the moment,” said Milford coach Andrew Mainini, “but there was never a moment in the match where I thought they gave up. Some of the points and some of the rallies, the pursuits of the ball in the fifth set were great. They may have come away with the win but I thought we left all of our heart on the floor.”
Despite a raucous crowd cheering them on, the Scarlet Hawks got off to a tough start to the match. A series of unforced errors handed Natick the edge in the first set, running off five straight points to turn a 13-13 tie into an 18-13 lead that it wouldn’t surrender. Connor Reardon was the main weapon for the Red Hawks, while Milford’s serve-receive struggled to put the ball in good positions to attack.
The second set was back-and-forth, as Milford started to find its groove and find outside hitter Joao Boaventura. The senior had six kills in the set and he was a constant menace that the Natick block had to keep an eye on.
“Our offense has come so far in the last couple weeks that there have been a lot of matches where the ball was spread out a lot,” said Mainini. “[Joao] definitely came out to play tonight, definitely controlled the match and scored some really big points for us.”
While it wasn’t the cleanest set for the hosts, who never led by more than three points throughout, Milford started to show some of its balance on offense. In addition to Boaventura and Filadelfo, Zachary Browne and Clayton Picket also got in on the action to keep the Natick defense honest in the middle of the net.
Natick tried to take the momentum back in the third set and jumped out to a 13-8 lead after three straight errors by Milford. The hosts started to battle back, with the help of a scoring error that kept Natick at 15 points. Despite the protests of the Natick bench, the officials kept the score the same and Milford took advantage to tie it after a pair of violations and a Browne block.
A kill by Filadelfo made it 17-16 but then Natick ensured that the controversy over the missing point would be short-lived by scoring nine of the next 13 points, riding the play of junior Brendan Carroll, to take control of the match.
“Their right side is not a very big guy but man does he play super well,” Mainini said. “We had a really tough time blocking the right side hitter. If we moved inside of the court, he hit outside of the block, if we moved out then he hit inside. To me, he won that match for them.”
With the season on the line, Milford put together its best set of the match. It was as though a switch had been flipped and the defense was better, the passing crisper, and the hits started to find open spots.
Browne snagged a point to bring the Hawks within one and then a block by Gabe Brandao tied the set at 6-6. Filadelfo had back-to-back hits to put Milford in front. Brandao had a block and kill that extended the lead to 11-6. Milford pulled ahead 17-12 on a kill by Boaventura, but Natick chipped away with three straight points. Needing a boost, Orellana set Picket in the middle and he buried his shot for a much-needed point.
As the crowd got louder and louder, Milford was able to hold off Natick in the fourth. Filadelfo with another couple of big hits down the stretch keeping Natick at bay and helping send the match to the fifth set.
“It would’ve been great had it been the final,” Mainini admitted, “but there was something special about it being at home and having the entire Milford community come out. The fan support was awesome. Since I’ve been here, we’ve never had an atmosphere that vibrant and intense.”
It was no surprise that the final set was close throughout. Boaventura had back-to-back kills to put Milford ahead 9-7, the second point coming after a long rally in which libero Tiago Carvalho laid out to make a spectacular dig on what seemed like a sure point for the visitors.
Boaventura added another hit to push the lead to 10-8 but then a net violation got one back for Natick and the visitors tied it on a kill by Will Landry. Browne put Milford back in front 11-10 and the crowd anticipated the completion of the comeback, but it would be the last point for Milford on the night. Natick got the final five points, four of them on errors, to grab the road win.
Mainini said, “The guys were diving everywhere to keep balls in play that I didn’t think could be. I feel like they left it all out there tonight. If a couple balls trickle over the net or are two inches in a different direction, the outcome of the game could’ve been completely different.”