NEWTON, Mass. – Taunton may have been the top seed heading into Thursday night’s South final at Newton South, the undefeated team having its best season in program history, but the Tigers were squaring off with Needham, a perennial power that had won the past three sectional titles and was only two years removed from winning a state championship.
The Tigers (20-1) had the energy and the excitement of a program on the rise, but it turned out that the experience of having played, and won, on this stage many times before was too much to overcome. Needham won its fourth straight South crown with a 3-0 (25-16, 25-20, 25-11) sweep, although the match was closer than the final score indicated.
In the second set, Taunton led 18-15 and seemed to be on the verge of getting back into the match, but Needham ran off six straight points to grab the lead, the momentum, and eventually the control of the match.
“You have to execute at the highest level,” said Taunton coach Toby Chaperon. “They very rarely made any mistakes. They’re not going to shoot themselves in the foot. They’re going to rely on their intelligence and their execution and usually it works out.”
At the start of the match, Taunton seemed rushed. The Tigers were obviously excited about the opportunity and making uncharacteristic mistakes. Passes were just a little off target, blocks were a little too close to the net, and the Rockets seemed to take advantage of everything.
“We were excited to be here,” said Chaperon. “We were amped up to play and I think a couple of plays into it they got a couple big blocks and kind of put us on our heels right away and that’s a team when they put you on your heels, they’re going to push you right over.”
Following a Lance Law ace, Taunton trailed just 8-6, but Needham rattled off 12 of the next 16 points to extend the lead to as many as 10. To that point in the set, the Tigers had only two kills, one from Lens Esquil and the other from Collin Hunter.
Chaperon said of the Rockets, “Their defense was almost flawless. The seams that you think are open, they’re able to get them. They get touches, their back row guys are pulling them up. They just play an awesome brand of defense.”
Law had a kill and Marc DeSousa had a block for a point, as Taunton grabbed a little bit of positive play right at the end of the set and the Tigers carried that over despite falling behind in the match. They came back onto the court for the second looking much more composed and confident.
Taunton jumped out to a 7-1 lead in the second, behind hits from Law, Esquil, and Hunter. Needham answered with four straight to cut the lead to three, but Esquil again took a perfect pass from setter Ricardo DaFonseca, who was also a standout defensively throughout the match, and blasted the Tigers in front by four.
“We just rotated it up, so that we could get Lens up front a little bit,” Chaperon explained. “He’s our second best hitter and we tried to get him more swings. We thought he’s one of our better blockers and we thought he could challenge their opposite and outside hitters a little better.”
Things went back-and-forth for the next few points, with Needham getting back within one on six different occasions, but Law and Esquil always seemed to find a hit that kept Taunton in front. After a DaFonseca kill and a hit that went long, Needham took a timeout trailing 18-15. It turned out to be the moment that would seal the win for the Rockets.
Needham came out with two kills by Jack Cruickshank and one from setter Eli Wallace to tie the set. The Rockets scored the next three points before a Malik Charles kill ended the run and Gage Kingman managed to drop a shot in between the entire Needham defense to make it 21-20. Cruickshank and Cam Robins fired Needham to four straight points and a 2-0 lead in the match.
The Rockets made sure that there would be no three-set comeback from the Tigers. Needham took a commanding 8-1 lead in the third and really never looked back, closing out the match with a dominant set. There were moments of energy from Taunton, such as Charles smashing a point down the middle, but the Rockets led the set throughout.
Regardless of the result in the South final, this was the best season in program history for the Tigers and one that Chaperon believes could build for the future.
“It was fantastic. What a great ride,” he said. “They’re one of the best groups of guys I’ve ever been able to coach. Not only are they great volleyball players, they’re great citizens, great students, and they went through their tie where it was a rough road for a couple years, but look what happens.
“You’ve got the whole school behind you and that’s what high school athletics should be about. Every team deserves to play in front of crowds like this.”