How does the Riverside-Brookfield High School boys volleyball team follow arguably the greatest season in program history?
With 11 returnees – 10 of them seniors – the Bulldogs have even higher expectations for the postseason and from themselves.
The Bulldogs are 6-2 after outlasting visiting Reavis 28-26, 25-23 Thursday.
“Winning a sectional championship. The farther the better, but a sectional championship is where I really want to go,” said 6-foot senior Erik Hartwig, second on the team in 2016 with 243 kills. “Last year I was more just a consistent sort of hitter, but now I’ve got to be consistently ending the play.”
The 2016 team finished 28-10 to tie the 28-11 team from 2011 for most victories in a season and captured the program’s third regional title and second in the past three seasons. Seeking their first sectional title, the Bulldogs lost in the semifinals to Hinsdale Central in three games for the second time last season.
These Bulldogs return five third-year varsity seniors in outside hitter Hartwig, setter Peter Ferguson, libero Zach Georgopoulos, defensive specialist/setter Gabe Espinoza and right-side hitter Mike Torres.
Also back are seniors Angelo Hernandez, Arturo Lopez, Gustavo Lopez, Trevor Reis-Evitt and Jure Zaper and junior middle hitter Jason Bageanis, another returning starter.
Three varsity newcomers, junior Evan Gyssler and sophomore starters Colby Campbell and DJ Degand, have club volleyball backgrounds.
“We’ve got a really deep team. Basically every guy can be out there at any moment and that’s a pretty rare thing,” RBHS coach Dan Bonarigo said. “I just tell them we have really high expectations because of the experience and skill level we already have. We won a lot of tight games last year. I feel very strongly no matter who we come against, I think we have a chance to win.”
The Bulldogs already have played five three-set matches, losing to Edwardsville and Joliet Catholic at the Joliet West Invitational March 24-25. They went 1-2 in pool play with all three matches decided in third sets to 15 points. In the Bronze Division playoffs, they swept Joliet West and St. Charles North for ninth overall.
“I’d say positives are our team has pretty good chemistry and we get along really well,” Ferguson said. “Big time (goals this season). We only lost two players. It’s just given us another year of experience together so we’ll come back even stronger.”
Hartwig leads the team with 92 kills, including 17 against Joliet Catholic and four others in double figures. He has 15 of the team’s 36 service aces.
Other category leaders include Ferguson (152 assists), Georgopoulos (64 digs, 118 serve receives), and Bageanis (21 total blocks). Bageanis also has 41 kills, Ferguson 48 digs and Degand 32 digs and six aces.
This is the second season with Ferguson in a one-setter offense. These Bulldogs may be more outside-oriented offensively after graduating two 2016 starters, middle hitter Maclean Nolan (team-best 321 kills and 90 blocks) and outside Lukas Kulbis (77 kills).
Twelve Bulldogs played against Reavis. In the first set, RBHS fought off set points at 24-23 and 26-25 before Bageanis had a kill for 26-26 and ended the set by blocking an attempted tip.
RBHS led late in the second set but by one or two points. Gyssler’s kill ended the match.
“It’s good when your backs are against the wall (like with Reavis). It kind of tests you and shows who is going to step up,” Bonarigo said. “For me, it’s all about work ethic — work hard, run after a ball, get on the floor. That’s what gives you the edge. Those are the plays that make a difference where you win both games by two points.”
Besides Hinsdale Central, this year’s De La Salle Sectional pairings again include Lyons Township, which beat the Red Devils for the sectional title and then lost in the state quarterfinals.
“What we need to do better is definitely come out strong individually. When we start strong, that’s just huge for us,” Hartwig said. “Honestly, my main goal for the season is beating (Hinsdale Central), to get past that point (in the playoffs) because that’s where we lost the year before.”