By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
VOORHEES — The Eastern Regional High boys volleyball team knew not to underestimate visiting Egg Harbor Township on Tuesday in the pre-quarterfinal round of the NJSIAA South playoffs. The Eagles blanked the Vikings, 2-0, in the third game of the season, so Eastern wasn’t all that surprised when EHT jumped out and won the opening set, 25-22, in the playoff rematch.
But the third-seeded Vikings were confident they could turn things around behind big hitters Pawandeep Singh and Cain Jones. They did just that, as Eastern’s “Dynamic Duo” combined for 20 kills and eight blocks to lead Eastern past No. 14 EHT, 2-1. The Vikings won the second set, 25-16, then held on for a 25-21 win in the third set to secure a quarterfinals matchup against No. 6 Clearview on Thursday.
“In the first set, we were cold. We were ready for the game, we just had to warm up. We knew what we could do as a team, and we knew who we have on our team, we just weren’t in the right mental state. But we called some timeouts, and between the first and second set we got ready and came out and did our thing in the second set,” said Eastern setter Dhrux K. Patel, who finished with 24 assists. “They are a true competitor. We played them earlier in the season and they beat us 2-0, so we knew what we were up against. We just showed out today, honestly. Even going back to last year, they were one of our best competitors. The gym is never quiet for a second (when you’re playing EHT). We knew they were the most vocal team we were going to play, so we told our supporters and our bench that we had to be louder than them. It’s all a mental game at the end of the day, and it’s a game of runs.”
“This is a second-year program and I’m excited about how far we got this year,” said EHT senior captain Scott Hiltner. “Coming off of a 7-6 season last year and going 14-6 this season, it shows a great improvement. Everyone put in a lot of work.”
In the opening set, Eastern (16-4) got out to a 15-12 lead, but EHT came storming back to take a 17-16 lead on a big kill from Hiltner. Another kill from Derrek Lee put the Eagles ahead, 18-17, but Eastern answered with a drop shot from Adan Plank to tie the score, 18-18. EHT then scored four straight points to move ahead, 22-18, and sophomore Chriistiian Vichienrat finished the set out with one of his eight kills on the day.
The second set was tied at 9 before Eastern began to take control, scoring five straight points to move ahead, 14-9. EHT (14-6) never recovered, as the Vikings led 18-13 after a big kill from Singh and extended that lead to 23-15 after a block from Plank.
“You see the whole court go crazy when (Singh) makes a big play. And Cain is really going to be on the map next year, he’s a junior this year. That’s our dynamic duo — No. 24 and No. 17,” Patel said.
The third set was a see-saw battle from the start. EHT got out to a 7-6 lead on a kill by Hiltner, but later Singh delivered another huge kill to put Eastern ahead, 12-8. Another finish from Singh had Eastern leading 16-12, but the Eagles rallied back to take a 17-16 lead when Brandon Dao won a point at the net. The set was tied at 19 before Eastern sprinted ahead, 23-19, on a drop shot down the line from Jones and a pair of aces from Patel.
A kill from Yash Davalbhakta put the Vikings in command at 24-20. EHT got to within 24-21 on a kill from Alec Barnes, but a misplay at the net gave Eastern the clinching point. The Vikings are one of seven top-eight seeds to advance to the quarterfinals. The highest remaining seed is No. 9 Manchester, which beat No. 8 Sterling on Tuesday.
“We had something to prove. We wanted to come out here and prove that we deserved to have this No. 3 seed,” Patel said. “This win warms us up for the next round. We had a match against Williamstown recently and we didn’t do well there, so this was a big bounce-back game. We know we’re going to play Clearview and they are very competitive, but we’ll be ready for that game.”
“We were 14-5 and Eastern was 15-4. The committee, the way the seedings work, it is what it is — for better or worse, I think they reward more established programs. But I don’t think we were 11 seeds below this team,” Wiech said. “We had expectations to go deep in these playoffs. We thought this group had what it took. Even with one of our best players injured (Ronald Sansom), we thought we could make a run. You have to give credit to Eastern. They are well coached and made far less errors than us, and that was a big factor. They got out of their own way sometimes and we didn’t, and that was the difference.”
What’s next: No. 3 Eastern hosts No. 6 Clearview in the NJSIAA South quarterfinals on Thursday. EHT’s season is complete.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays