By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Christian Wiech didn’t pay attention to the normal road blocks associated with starting a brand new sports program at the high school varsity level. A successful girls soccer coach at Egg Harbor Township High in the fall, Wiech started up the boys volleyball team at the school prior to the 2021 spring season.
He’s heard it all before — “it’s going to take time” and “you have to be patient, you may not win much with a new program.” He chooses not to listen to that kind of caution, instead asking questions like, “why can’t a Group 4 school with a bunch of good athletes come out and compete right away?”
That’s exactly what the Eagles have done so far in their brief two-year history. EHT posted a 7-6 record in its inaugural season, then followed that up with an impressive 14-6 mark this spring that included a 10-match winning streak that was only stopped in the second round of states by eventual South Jersey playoff finalist Eastern Regional.
“This is a second-year program and I’m excited about how far we got this year,” said senior Scott Hiltner, who played lacrosse in the spring prior to starting his volleyball career. “Coming off a 7-6 season last year and going 14-6 this season, it shows a great improvement. Everyone put in a lot of work.”
EHT entered the state tournament as the No. 11 seed and beat Paul VI in the play-in round. That set up a matchup against No. 3 Eastern, one of the more established programs in the area and a true contender for the South Jersey championship. EHT took the Vikings to the brink, and Eastern needed to hold off a late Eagles rally to win in three sets to advance.
“We’re a second-year program and the expectations are what they are for new programs, but we’ve taught our boys from Day One to go out and be aggressive. You want to be on the aggressive side in this sport. To see where they were last year, to this year getting 10 wins in a row to finish out the regular season, winning on the road at Kingsway, Central Regional — we beat Eastern earlier in the season — I think this group put EHT on the map,” Wiech (pronounced WEECH) said. “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. 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, we thought we could make a run.”
Hiltner, like a lot of the players on EHT’s roster, grew up playing other sports and had little volleyball experience or knowledge, but now professes a love for the game. He said he couldn’t imagine now what his high school career might have been like without playing volleyball.
“I started playing during the summer of the coronavirus and I played for the Eastern Academy club team between my junior and senior years. I played ice hockey and lacrosse (when I was younger). I just loved this sport from the start, it’s a great feeling to be on the court with your teammates. I think everyone had a lot of drive this year. And we have a great coaching staff, which makes it easy to get into the sport and find a passion for it, and put in the work,” he said. “I think it’s great to see (EHT) kind of get on the map and see other teams recognize us. I’ve just really enjoyed this opportunity to work with my teammates to help put this team on the map. This is definitely my No. 1 high school experience. I’m sad it’s over, but I enjoyed my entire senior season. Just hanging with my friends every day was great — even Saturday practices at 6 a.m., it was fun to be there.
Wiech said he’s excited about where this program can go in the near future.
“We have kind of the perfect storm at EHT — we have accessibility to the sport because we have beach courts in one of our local parks, we have recreational leagues at the shore in Margate and Ventnor, I have great coaches around me. There are some really good volleyball players who have taken the time to help our program develop and that teaching from those guys really helps,” the coach said. “We’re excited that there might be a Cape-Atlantic League forming for boys volleyball. We’ve done well, unofficially, in the CAL, against CAL opponents the last two years. We’re hopeful we’ll be competing for a CAL title next year and hopefully win some hardware. Now, it’s beach season so our guys will keep playing and enjoying the sport.”
Wiech said he fully expected his team to be very competitive this year and make a run in the state tournament. The Eagles might be a year or two away from really going deep at states, but the coach said he’s not changing his expectations at all.
“All the feedback I got from other coaches early on was that we had a team that could make some noise,” he said. “We played in a tournament in Lacey and they had a great lineup — Christian Brothers Academy, Howell, Lacey, Toms River schools, a lot of big teams from Central and South Jersey, and we had a great outing there. So, we expected this season. We’re disappointed with how it ended, but we’ll look back on it fondly.”
Right now, it’s all about sticking to the plan and getting guys as much experience in the offseason as possible.
“When we started last year we had a three-year vision to really establish ourselves. I think we’re a year ahead of schedule, the way this season went. We’ve had more than 70 kids try out each year and I think that will only grow now that we’ve been able to have fans in the stands, the student body has been able to see what we have,” Wiech said. “We had three kids with more than 100 kills this year, our setter had more than 300 assists, we had four guys with almost 100 digs. We had some great senior leadership this year, but we have some guys who are great players in the program on varsity and coming up through JV. All these guys are all just one or two years of experience.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
State of the Program: EHT boys volleyball already making noise after just two seasons
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN