By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
LINWOOD — Senior Julia Thornton has a front-row seat every game to watch star outside hitters and middle blockers such as Bella Canesi, Laziah Wilson, Liv Leap and Kaitlyn Boggs do their thing for the best team in the Cape-Atlantic League. The back-line player also gets to watch Cadence Fitzgerald — perhaps the best setter in South Jersey — set those players up for huge spikes at the net. It can be as hypnotizing as a symphony, and Thornton has to make sure she’s paying attention when the ball comes her way.
That’s how good the front line is for Mainland Regional. You find yourself staring in awe as they continue to pound opposing teams and block their best attempts at their own offensive spikes.
The Mustangs’ talents were on display on Tuesday night as they made quick work of visiting Oakcrest, winning 25-8 and 25-15 to sweep the match in straight sets and improve to 13-1. Mainland’s only loss came against powerful Ocean County foe Pinelands last week, and since then the Stangs have won four straight after seeing their nine-game winning streak to start the season snapped by the Wildcats. Only two teams have even won a game against Mainland — Pinelands, which won 2-1 on Oct. 11, and Cedar Creek, which lost 2-1 to Mainland on two occasions this year.
“It’s awesome having them,” Thornton said. “They rely on us to get the ball to them and our setter, Cadence, she’s amazing. We have to work together to get the ball to them so they can finish.”
Mainland now turns its attention to the CAL Tournament, which begins today and features the top four teams in each of the league’s two divisions. The Stangs square off against ACIT (7-11), the fourth-place team in the CAL American. Other entries from the American Conference include Absegami, Pleasantville and Hammonton, and the teams below Mainland in the National Conference that made the field are Cedar Creek, OLMA and Oakcrest. First-round games are today with the semifinals on Friday and championship match on Monday.
“We’ve just been working on communication and teamwork, and we’ve been doing pretty well with that, but I feel like we can still do better with that,” Wilson said. “We’re having game on top of game and it’s been tiring, but even when we’re tired we have to bounce back and play better than we did the game before. But we’ve been pretty good at that.”
Mainland is playing with a ton of confidence right now, and for good reason, as everybody in the rotation is contributing. Against Oakcrest in Game 1, Wilson went on a string of service points that helped Mainland blow the game open by taking a 15-5 lead. Boggs drilled the game-winning kill, and libero Amaya Perez had a couple of service aces to help extend the lead prior to that.
In Game 2, Oakcrest (9-7) got off to an early lead, but then Mainland scored five straight points to take a 5-2 lead and with Canesi serving the Stangs opened up a 10-5 lead. Oakcrest cut the deficit to 13-7 but that’s as close as the Falcons could get, as Perez scored some service point to help Mainland build a 21-11 lead. Not surprisingly, Canesi ended the match with a monster slam from the left side straight down into the center of the court.
Canesi finished with nine kills while Leap and Boggs combined for 10 more, Fitgzerald finished with 24 assists and Wilson and Perez combined for 10 service aces. Leap also had 14 digs.
“It’s awesome. I love being part of this team. It’s a family on and off the court,” Wilson said. “Our mindset is to just to win, to play hard, to go for every ball and be scrappy. It’s been amazing. I feel like this whole team has been an amazing surprise. Like I said, our mindset it just to win, so even when we’re practicing it’s like we’re playing a game. As soon as I wake up, the first thing on my mind is the game and when will it be game time.
“Coach (Torie Rich, second year) always says that no matter who we’re playing we have to go out and play our hardest. Sometimes we struggle to get started but today I think we really showed that, from point No. 1, we were working hard. I’m proud of us, we’ve been working on getting off to better starts,” Thornton said. “I think we were a little scared (last year) in the beginning just because having new coaches come in, everything was different, but we’re proud of the coaches and we’re working hard. Since it was such a different season, being in the spring, it’s been volleyball for us since the spring and that’s kept us pushing. We’ve been crushing it.”
The Stangs have to gear up for a hectic schedule. If they advance to the CAL championship that will be three matches in six days, and they’re also scheduled to take on Middle Township on Thursday.
“The big key will be just not getting tired, since we have five games this week,” Thornton said. “We have to keep our spirits up and keep things rolling.”
What’s next: Mainland hosts ACIT today at 4 p.m. in the CAL Tournament quarterfinals. Oakcrest travels to Absegami today for the CAL quarterfinals, time TBA.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays