By Marty Farmer
Riverside-Brookfield High School boys volleyball coach Dan Bonarigo doesn't have much company on the bench this season. The Bulldogs have 10 varsity players, down four from last year's 14-player squad that finished 30-9, won the Willowbrook Invite, a regional championship and advanced to a sectional final.
Bonarigo is optimistic, however, that whatever RBHS lacks in quantity can be made up for by quality. Off to An 8-7 start, the team remains a work in progress.
"This is one of the smaller rosters of players I've had at RB," Bonarigo said. "It's a good group that really wants to win matches. The team is a little bit quieter this season. Last year, we had a really rowdy group and the bench was really vocal and supportive."
Although the Bulldogs lost several key contributors to graduation, three returning starters in middle blocker Jason Bageanis, outside hitter DJ Degand and middle blocker Colby Campbell ensure some continuity.
Bageanis, who signed to play college volleyball at St. Ambrose University, had 225 kills and 75 blocks last season. The 6-foot-5 senior also earned All-Metro Suburban Conference honors in basketball during the winter.
"Jason is a three-year starter," Bonarigo said. "We're obviously looking for him to lead the way and dominate the net. He's quite a force and really starting to connect with our setter."
Degand amassed 40 kills, 23 aces, 114 digs and 51 assists, while Campbell had 63 kills, 53 blocks in 2017.
"DJ is just a real strong all-around player. He's played at outside hitter and also as a serving specialist and defensive specialist," Bonarigo said. "Colby is probably one of the best technical blockers I've had here. He has excellent timing and hand positioning."
A pair of sophomores, setter Jonah Raith and outside hitter Vejas Cuplinskas, have brought an infusion of energy not to mention additional talent to the lineup.
"Jonah has started every match this season and he probably won't come off the court," Bonarigo said. "I'm very pleased with how he has started. Setting was one of our question marks coming into the season. He's developed quickly although he still has work to do.
"I believe Vejas is second in kills, just slightly behind Jason," Bonarigo said. "It's great to see a sophomore have confidence and taking swings. He's getting a lot of sets and seeing a lot of balls."
Along with sophomore middle blocker/right side hitter Matthew Hanson, Raith and Cuplinskas provide cause for optimism down the road.
"It's nice to see our sophomores taking on such big roles because we have them for two more years," Bonarigo said. "When they show this much promise as sophomores, the sky's the limit in the future."
Other contributors include junior right side hitter Matthew Lams, junior libero Luke Reilley, senior outside hitter Sean Klump and senior setter/right side hitter Robert Holubek.
While this team will be hard pressed to replicate or surpass last season's win total, that's not even a concern for Bonarigo.
"I don't really ever put out a number of wins I'm looking for in a season," Bonarigo said. "I mean if I did, I would probably say last year's wins expectation was higher than this year. But I talk to the guys and tell them I really don't care about wins and losses. I care about how hard you play and what kind of fight you have."
At the Warren Invite over the weekend, the Bulldogs' play served as a microcosm of the ups and downs of a regular season. RBHS went 3-2 and finished in 10th place. The Bulldogs lost their opener, 12-25, 23-25 against New Trier, then swept Zion-Benton, Hinsdale Central and Evanston winning 6 of 7 games before losing to Willowbrook 23-25, 20-25. RBHS lost to New Trier in the 2017 Warren Invite final.
"We came out flat against New Trier in our first match," Bonarigo said about this year's rematch. "We played better against them in the second game. New Trier is a top 10 caliber team so it's no shame to lose to them, but we didn't look good in the first game. After that match, we won three in a row but then lost to Willowbrook, which was kind of a disappointing way to end the tournament."
Aside from invitationals, RBHS takes on a variety of opponents since it has no conference affiliation. Upcoming games include matches against a mix of Metro Suburban and West Suburban Conference squads like Illiana Christian and Fenton (Metro Suburban) and Hinsdale Central, Leyden and Oak Park and River Forest (West Suburban). The Bulldogs also face area rivals Fenwick and Nazareth.
"In our sport, we play a lot of games that are packed in closely together," Bonarigo said. "It's tough to stay focused every single game, but that's the intensity needed to play well. It's important to be proud of the effort you put in during a match. You want to be satisfied with your effort when you walk out of that gym."