Whalen's Lions earn A finals berth with straight-set win over Clarence.
By John D'Onofrio Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
If you’re looking for Lockport boys volleyball, it’s officially on the map.
Playing their best match of the season on Saturday, the gritty, high-flying Lions won all the big points, hit all the clutch shots and walked away with an impressive 25-22, 29-27, 25-11 straight-set victory over the visiting No. 3 Clarence Red Raiders in a Section VI Class A semifinal contest.
With the win — Lockport’s most important in program history — the No. 2-seeded Lions (21-3) advance to their first ever sectional title game at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Hamburg High School against No. 5 Frontier, 3-1 winners over top-seeded West Seneca West on Saturday.
“Lockport volleyball is on the map,” said Lions senior setter Jack Whalen. “We’ve been to the semifinals before, but this year we wanted more. We rode a lot of momentum today.”
Added LHS senior Brad Wroblewski, “I think this win says that Lockport volleyball is something to be scared of.”
The victory was a psychological one as a well for northern Niagara County schools and a sometimes ridiculed Niagara Frontier League that the Lions captured in undefeated fashion in 2013.
“Clarence coach Kevin Starr knows what kind of team we are because he’s coached some of our players in club before,” said Lions head coach Joe Whalen. “Sometimes there’s a misconception that if you’re a north towns school, you’re not at the same level as the south towns schools, but a half dozen of our kids have played with kids from the south towns schools since seventh grade. There’s no level of difference.”
Lockport senior Bryce Perry added, “The NFL’s no joke. The ECIC might have thought we were a joke in the past, but we’re not.”
Perry spiked home Lockport’s first point of the first set, and the Lions’ senior contingent, especially Jonah Ribbeck, produced some clutch points, but it was juniors Jason Donorovich and Brad Schneider who delivered the most blows with some heavy duty smashes at the net as the Lions cruised through the opening set.
“We practiced just like this all week. It was all about intensity and we brought that tonight,” said the intimidating 6-8 middle hitter Donorovich. “All we did at practice was work hard on our tip defense and tip offense and finding ways around the blocks. That worked out for us today.”
The second set turned out to be the most significant one with the Red Devils (15-11) opening up a 14-7 lead before coach Whalen called a timeout to regroup his team.
“We’ve been in similar situations before where we were down by five to 10 points and we just keep powering through. We don’t let up,” said Lions senior libero Eamon Yates.
“We started that set off bad — a lot of mistakes,” Perry said. “We tried to slow each other down. There was just way too much anxiety. We calmed each other down and told each other to relax then we went out and went hard again.”
Added Wroblewski, “We just needed to get our flow back. I think everyone was scared to make a mistake.”
Kills by Schneider and Donorovich and a well-placed Perry ace brought the Lions within two at 15-13, but Clarence maintained a slim lead in the set, thanks to strong play by senior co-captain Derek Burghardt. Moments later back-to-back blocks at the net by Schneider lifted Lockport into the lead, 24-23, but the Red Devils would hold on for a few more points. Finally, Ribbeck dropped in a brilliant tip shot and senior Shawn Moore served an ace to close out the second set.
It was a redeeming finish for Moore, who felt he could have produced a kill mid-set but miss-hit the ball.
“It felt good getting that point to win the set. We tell each other all the time to take it one point at a time. You can’t change what’s in the past,” Moore said.
Added Ribbeck, “The second set was really big and gave us a lot of energy. It just shows that we deserve that number two spot and we deserve to be in the finals.”
The third set was merely a formality as the Red Devils couldn’t overcome Lockport’s determined comeback in the second set. The Lions roared out to a big lead early, then cruised.
“The second set was definitely the difference today,” said Red Devils head coach Kevin Starr. “You can say all the things you want about letting them come back from a game you should have won, but it’s tough. It would be tough for adults, too. We had a great season really. I’m proud of the boys. I think if we played them 10 times, we’d split, but they were the better team today.”
Coach Whalen said that Clarence is not an easy team to sweep.
“I think I paced off a spot on the floor,” coach Whalen quipped. “We won the long points and those make you feel great. Those rejuvenate you. They charge your battery. Everything we did we did very well. They covered the tips well and they recovered from being down. It was a testament — a sign that we’re a strong team.”
Schneider said Wednesday can’t come soon enough.
“I can’t wait for the finals. It’s our first time and it’s going to be great,” Schneider said. “They knew we brought our A game today. We played our best when we needed to.”