By Marty Farmer
The fourth time was the charm for the Riverside-Brookfield High School boys volleyball team. After a pair of runner-up finishes and a fourth-place showing at tournaments earlier this season, the Bulldogs finally went all the way by winning the Willowbrook Invite on May 11.
RBHS reeled off five straight victories to claim the Willowbrook title.
"We felt like we weren't playing to our full potential the past few weeks so winning the Willowbrook title definitely boosted our confidence," said senior DJ Dergand who has 204 kills and 115 digs this season. "I think we're back on the same path we were on at the beginning of the season. We brought a lot more energy at Willowbrook, and much of that energy came from our bench players who helped pump up the starters and keep us focused. Our drive to win increased tremendously."
After notching relatively comfortable wins against Addison Trail, Schaumburg and York in pool play and the quarterfinals, RBHS faced pair of stern tests the rest of the way.
In the semifinals, RBHS earned a 22-25, 25-16, 25-20 comeback win over Joliet Catholic. The Bulldogs parlayed that momentum into the final, defeating Hinsdale Central 25-21, 25-20.
"We played with incredible energy through the weekend, but particularly in our three Saturday matchups that culminated with a great performance in the championship game against our rival Hinsdale Central," RBHS coach Dan Bonarigo said. "The outcome was in question as we trailed by four or five points early in both games to Hinsdale Central, but we have shown incredible resilience and an ability to come back from early deficits."
In the championship match, the Bulldogs' Vejas Cuplinskas led offensively with nine kills. Degand and Colby Campbell, who have committed to play college volleyball at Missouri Baptist and Millikin, respectively, contributed four kills apiece.
Campbell also shut down the Red Devils' hitters with five blocks, while teammates Matt Hansen (4 blocks) and Matt Lams (3 blocks, 4 digs) also provided resistance at the net. Jonah Raith (19 assists, 4 digs) and Lucas Reilley (7 digs) also played key roles for the victors.
"I believe that our team is getting better every week," Lams said. "We still have things to work on because we are never satisfied. We know that there is always something that can be improved about our game."
Cuplinskas, who has a team-high 259 kills this season, echoed Lams' sentiments.
"I think our team is doing really well so far, but we can still do better," he said. "We don't care who we play because we always believe ourselves to be the better team. As we like to say, 'We like us.'"
RBHS (25-8, 5-2 Metro Suburban Conference) will finish second in conference behind St. Francis, which finished 8-0 in league play.
The Spartans swept the Bulldogs in two meetings, the latest a 25-23, 26-28, 25-20 victory in Riverside on May 8. Cuplinskas (21 kills) and Raith (38 assists) set school records for most kills and assists, respectively, in one match.
Fresh off another excellent regular season, RBHS has landed as the No. 4 seed in the Hinsdale South Sectional. St. Francis is the top seed, followed by Neuqua Valley, West Aurora, RBHS and Lyons Township.
"We are very pleased to earn such a high seed in a very competitive sectional," Bonarigo said. "We are also excited to be hosting a regional as a top seed, but we will have to contend with very competitive teams, namely LT to win the regional championship. We hope to win the regional and then have another chance at St. Francis."
The Bulldogs open the postseason at home against Proviso East on Monday, May 20. The quarterfinals match starts at 4:30 p.m.
The Riverside-Brookfield Regional final will be played on Wednesday, May 22 at 6 p.m.
"Hosting a regional is an awesome experience," Campbell said. "Not many players get a chance to bring the playoffs to their home court so we want to make the best of this opportunity. There was a lot of sweat and hard work to earn the fourth seed. It's not easy to earn that out of 29 teams, but we have all pushed each other to our fullest potential."