Junior Adam Brush, Gianacopolos’ tallest player at 6-foot-5, recently sustained a significant ankle sprain. He sat out No. 3 Southington’s 3-0 semifinal deposing of No. 2 Staples, last year’s Class L champion, on Monday and isn’t expected to play in the state final tonight against top-seeded Ridgefield at Kennedy High in Waterbury at 6 p.m.
Brush has the highest hitting percentage (56 percent) and the most blocks (51) on the team and is second only to Dan Connolly in kills. The loss of a player so critical to the team’s well-being would produce panic for some groups, but obviously not Gianacopolos’ well-drilled squad.
“Nobody wins a championship without any adversity,” Gianacopolos said. “We were thinking that Adam going down was our adversity. Those who can achieve and work through their adversity and rise above it will win championships. I don’t think anybody’s ever won a championship without some adversity.
“[Brush’s ankle injury] was our adversity and if something’s going to push us through to the championship, I think that’s going to be it.”
The Blue Knights (18-2) won their only Class L title in 2010 with a 3-2 victory over Staples, a nemesis that knocked them out of the tournament five times in six seasons, including in the finals for three straight seasons (2007-2009) and then in two straight quarterfinals (2011-2012).
The Knights met their end in the semifinals last spring against Glastonbury, which Ridgefield (20-2) whitewashed in this year’s semifinals.
Both Gianacopolos and Ridgefield coach Lidania Cibere are pleased with tonight’s championship matchup.
“You can’t have this every single year,” Gianacopolos said. “You go back to 2010, when we had our opportunity in the state finals, but I’m happy we don’t have to play Staples in the final.”
Staples and Ridgefield have developed a keen arch-rivalry in the FCIAC, deemed by Cibere to be the state’s strongest league.
“[When we play Staples] it feels like it’s more than a volleyball game,” Cibere said. “This will be our first meeting with Southington and it’s refreshing. We’re always playing Staples. It’s exciting to be playing someone new.”
The Tigers beat Staples 3-1 in April, but lost a rematch in the finals of the FCIAC Tournament on May 30 by the same score. Their lone state title came in 2003. They were defeated by Cheshire in 2012, their most recent state finals appearance.
As for Southington’s semifinal win over Staples, Gianacopolos’ strategy of using three outside hitters, borne from the loss of Brush, worked magnificently, Connolly, David Shaughnessy and Dan Normandin elevated their games. Mark Horanzy and Nate Keen maintained the assault off the bench.
“[Losing Brush] makes you think and be creative,” Gianacopolos said. “Most teams would think, ‘Hmm, how are we going to try and win this game?’ or would be thinking about losing it. But we have a bench that is so deep we could have run this offense with four other guys.”
Setter Peter Masters clearly outplayed his Staples counterparts.
“We started out knowing we had a good team and we grew as the season went on,” Masters said. “Our two losses to Newington taught us a lot about each other. We learned to bring energy and we brought it into the state tournament.”
Libero Tom DelBuono made game-changing service runs in the second and third sets with his finesse-oriented precision, a change of pace from the blistering banana jump-serves delivered by Connolly, Shaughnessy and Normandin.
“It keeps people on their toes and prevents other teams from getting into a rhythm,” Connolly said. “I try to hit some spots and make them try to pass where we want them to.”
Ridgefield is led by 6-4 middle hitter Griffin Jones and the Liapunov brothers — two-time junior All-Stater Karl is the primary outside hitter while freshman Henrik is one of two setters Cibere employs. Jones averages over four kills per set and four blocks per match.
“They have a very big middle, just like Staples does a pretty decent job outside,” Gianacopolos said. “We get to play a match that’s not only going to be successful for us, it’s going to be fun.”