JOLIET – Nothing seems to be stopping the Hilltoppers. After hitting two program milestones Tuesday, the Joliet Catholic boys volleyball team picked up another home victory Wednesday, 25-19, 25-15, over nonconference rival Providence.
“It’s been a great year,” junior outside hitter Blake Reardon said. “Everyone has been doing exactly what our coaches are telling us to do. We’re all finishing and doing our part. It’s been all hard work. We’ve come in before school and put in extra hours. Everything is finally getting in a groove, meshing together and playing perfectly.”
“I told people last year that it was a two-year project for me,” JCA coach Rhyen Staley said. “We knew that we had all but one senior last year, so we were working this year to not only hit the milestone of breaking 30 wins for the first time but beating teams that we have never beaten before.
“We never beat St. Francis. We never played in the finals of the Lincoln-Way East tournament. We never won a tournament. So there are a lot of those fun things that have taken place this year that we can look back on and see they’re the results of all of the efforts of our group.”
But the Celtics didn’t let the Hilltoppers have an easy win.
In the first game, the teams battled. JCA came out with energy, maybe a little too much. Providence had a 4-1 ace-to-service error ratio while JCA had a 0-3 ratio.
Trailing, 19-18, JCA junior middle blocker Ben Gabor swung for a kill. Then it clicked. Senior outside hitter Mitch Gustafson went behind the line and served for the remainder of Game 1, as the Hilltoppers had two blocks and three kills.
“Everyone did really good,” Gabor said. “Everyone worked together, and no one got mad at each other, which is big. We all stayed together as a team and won.”
In Game 2, JCA (31-4, 8-1) was in a similar situation. Down, 12-11, the Hilltoppers called a timeout. Off serve receive, Gabor put down another of his eight kills. Then Gustafson went back to serve again, this time for eight points, making the score 18-12 before the Celtics sided out on a Zack Heller kill.
Beforehand, three Hilltoppers were honored for career achievements. Senior setter Aron Goeken had passed the 1,500 career assist mark, senior libero Tony Allen passed 1,000 career digs, and Reardon swung for more than 1,000 career kills.
They added onto their numbers. Allen had a spectacular night, digging more than 13 hits and passing a 2.6 on a 3.0 serve-receive passing scale. Goeken totaled 27 kills, four digs and four setter dump kills. Reardon had nine kills while tallying an ace.
The Hilltoppers had nine blocks total. Gabor led the defense at the net with two solo blocks and five block assists, while Goeken had five block assists, Reardon and senior middle hitter Jason Turley both had two block assists, and right-side hitter Chandler Kowaliczko had one.
“It was a great game,” Reardon said. “We were all excited and played as hard as we could. My teammates played amazing. I’ve never seen them play like that before, and I loved every second of it.”
Offensively, the Hilltoppers weren’t lacking, either. Kowaliczko hit five kills and a .833 hitting percentage, Turley added three kills and Gustafson one.
JCA also had three aces – two from Gustafson. The serving pressure and the serving runs, however, are what helped the Hilltoppers win the game and keep Providence out of system.
“At times, it was good to see the guys battling, coming together and never giving up,” Celtics coach Kyle Klaver said. “That’s what we pride ourselves on. We play until the end, win or lose. I’m proud of the way they played. It didn’t go our way, but it’s something to build on.”
Bryan Grill led the Celtics (15-16) with five kills, while Nathan Heller had three and Eric Combs, Mike Daly and Zack Heller each had two. Jack Richardson had 11 digs, and Bryan Gronek had 13 assists.
Both teams have tough regionals next week. Providence will play Lincoln-Way Central on Monday, and JCA will play the winner of the Minooka-Plainfield Central quarterfinal.
“We have a tough regional ahead,” Klaver said. “One through seven is tough.”
“It’s going to be tough. No one in the state has an easy regional,” Staley said. “We take everybody seriously, no matter how strong their record is. We know that the winner of Minooka-Plainfield Central is going to be a tough opponent.”