By Marty Farmer
There's no doubt that the Riverside-Brookfield High School boys volleyball team will enter the state playoffs well prepared. At 17-7 overall with a 3-1 record in the Metro Suburban Conference, the Bulldogs have mixed it up against several of the state's best teams this season.
RBHS has notable wins over New Trier and Hinsdale Central, but has also lost close matches against contenders Lincoln-Way West, defending state champion Lincoln-Way East, Deerfield and Oak Park and River Forest.
At invites, the Bulldogs won four of five matches to finish second at Joliet West and placed fourth at Warren.
"We have had some ups and downs this year, highlighted by some big wins and tough losses against highly regarded opponents," RBHS coach Dan Bonarigo said. "We've gotten through the busiest portion of our season, but we still have 11 regular season matches to play. Our hope is to earn a top seed in our sectional, win a regional championship and compete for our first sectional championship."
Senior outside hitters DJ Degand and Colby Campbell lead the offense out of both the front and back row.
Degand, who has committed to Missouri Baptist University, has 162 kills, 19 aces, 95 digs and 24 blocks, while the Millikin University-bound Campbell has 133 kills, 61 blocks and a .279 hitting percentage this season.
"DJ is one of our co-captains and a steady passer and defender," Bonarigo said. "Colby is an intimidating presence at the net and takes pride in his blocking. He is probably one of the most fundamentally sound blockers we've ever had, which is a high compliment, based on the number of outstanding middle hitters we've had over the years."
Several other upperclassmen have contributed heavily to the team's success.
Junior outside hitter Vejas Cuplinskas (174 kills, 84 digs) is a powerful hitter who has shown steady improvement, while senior libero Lucas Reilley (125 digs) brings leadership and poise to the court.
Bonarigo also praised the efforts of junior setter Jonah Raith (461 assists, 79 digs), senior opposite side hitter Matt Lams (39 kills, 43 digs) and junior middle hitter Matt Hansen (68 kills, 30 blocks). Lams will play college volleyball at Concordia University in River Forest.
"After starting the entire year as a sophomore, Jonah has continued to improve this year," Bonarigo said. "Matt Lams has a great attitude and work ethic. He pushes the team to work hard and improve every day. Matt Hansen has taken on the role of middle hitter quite well. On a team with excellent hitters at every position, he continues to be a steady force at the net and improves daily."
With such a talented lineup, optimism is understandably high for the rest of the season.
"My expectations are for us to break the school's record from my sophomore season of 30 wins and to win the conference championship in our first season in the conference," Degand said. "I think if we keep our eyes on the prize and stay focused, nothing can stop us from achieving greatness."
Campbell added: "The sky is the limit for us. We all connect on a level which makes this team elite among the others in state. Our goal is to make a run into the playoffs and hopefully go all the way, but we have to take it one step at a time."
In a recent match on April 25, the Bulldogs lost 25-23, 19-25, 25-20 against host OPRF in the area rivals' annual nonconference match.
Kuplinskas led RBHS with 11 kills, while Campbell and Degand had eight apiece against OPRF. Raith dished out 29 assists and Reilley led the Bulldogs defensively with nine digs.
"The Oak Park match featured a lot of great rallies and big kills from both sides of the net," Bonarigo said. "Our team had 110 hitting attempts, which speaks to a lot of long rallies and great defense. The match could have gone either way, but we came up on the short end against a great team."