CHESHIRE — Cheshire boys volleyball is seeking its first state title in 11 years on Friday night.
The only obstacle standing in front of the No. 6 Rams is No. 4 Masuk. The two foes will meet on Friday night at the Sport and Medical Sciences Academy at 6 p.m.
The Rams are riding an eight-game winning streak, which included a run to the Southern Connecticut Conference crown, and are 21-4 heading into the final.
Masuk, out of the South-West Conference, enters with a 20-4 record, which includes a 3-0 win at Cheshire on April 20. Game scores that day were 25-17, 25-21 and 25-20.
“We are a totally different team now,” Cheshire coach Sue Bavone said. “They will be the first to say that when they see us. I’m sure they have gotten much better too. They are young with one senior leader and a lot of underclassmen, but their senior is outstanding.”
That senior is Nathan McCaule. He leads Masuk with 345 kills and 41 aces.
This is Masuk’s third state final appearance. The Panthers defeated Farmington in 2009 for the Class M crown. They returned in 2010, but fell to Lewis Mills.
The Panthers punched their ticket to the 2023 final by defeating New Canaan 3-2 in the semifinals on Tuesday. That same night, Cheshire advanced with a 3-2 win over No. 10 Farmington at SMSA. Game scores were 23-25, 25-23, 25-19, 16-25 and 15-12.
Cheshire was paced by Connor Hayes’ 16 kills, Will Allen’s 13 kills and Matt Irizarry’s 46 assists.
This is Cheshire’s fourth state title game appearance. The Rams won back-to-back undefeated Class L crowns in 2011 and 2012. Cheshire lost in the 2019 Class M state final to Newington.
Experience isn’t an issue for the Cheshire coaching staff. This is Bavone’s 20th season with the boys team. She has compiled a 292-138 record and a 46-23 postseason mark.
Bavone has coached the Cheshire girls volleyball team since 1994 and, in that sport, is 587-101, including 128-38 record in the playoffs.
Bavone said this Cheshire team has improved as the season has gone on. After a 4-3 start, which culminated with the 3-0 loss to Masuk, the Rams have gone 17-1.
“In the beginning of the season, we knew we had some nice players and a lot of them played in the offseason,” Bavone said. “We knew we had offensive weapons and we started out with a 6-2 (with two setters) to a 5-1 with Matthew Irizarry as our setter.”
Bavone also shortened her rotation to seven players after the slow start and Will Allen was moved from outside to the middle.
“Early May, we started sticking with the smaller rotation with some good contributions off the bench,” Bavone said. “When we got to the smaller rotation, there was less confusion. With less subbing, the guys had to rely on each other and they were in a foxhole together.
“They work well together. The chemistry is better and we are playing really good volleyball.”
Bavone said the only comparison between this year’s team and two state championship squads of a decade ago is the balanced scoring.
“Those teams back then were guys who were upperclassmen and and had four years in the program and played so many years together,” Bavone said. “We have a lot of new faces this year and a couple of sophomores and juniors out there. For the future it’s nice, but a lot of guys are getting their first big-time game experience this year. That’s where you get those missed serves. They are experiencing for the first time. It’s exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time.
“I feel this team relies more on us as coaches to tell them what to expect moving forward,” Bavone added.
Cheshire has five attackers over 100 kills. Two have eclipsed 200. Allen has 226 kills, 72 digs and 30 blocks. Those 226 kills and 72 digs lead the team.
Sophomore Matti Lilback is second on the team with 210 kills and 32 blocks. Junior Connor Hayes has 174 kills and a team-high 38 blocks.
Senior Jason Cafourek (128 kills) and sophomore Jacob Daddona (119 kills, 64 digs) round out Cheshire’s top attackers.
Irizarry, a first-year setter, has dished out 687 assists.
“At this time of the year, you can’t leave anything in the tank,” Bavone said. “You have to swing and be aggressive. When you boil it down, when you get to these final games, it comes down to who makes the least mistakes.”
The contest was originally scheduled to take place Thursday as a part of a doubleheader with the Class L game between Trumbull and Darien. However, with Masuk’s graduation on Thursday, the game was moved to Friday night.
“I like the stand-alone game,” Bavone said. “It’s such a big game. (In a doubleheader), when you are the first team that plays, you can’t fully absorb the atmosphere. If you win, you have to rush off the court so the next teams can warm up.
“The final should be your spotlight. I get it, and they have trouble finding sites, but if you are that team that wins the first game you want to linger in the moment a little bit and find friends and family and absorb it all in. You don’t want to be rushed off the court.”
Perhaps on Friday night, in the end, with no other teams waiting in the wings, the Rams will be the one lingering and soaking in the moment.