Seeing that brighter days awaited Sweet Home boys volleyball back in 2015 wasn’t hard for coach Rich Cicero.
It’s not because he had a crystal ball. It’s because he had a bird’s-eye view of it in practice.
Cicero saw the program’s future in action daily during what turned out to be a winless season for his Panthers. The members of the young and talented junior varsity team regularly took down his varsity outfit in scrimmages conducted in practices.
Victory after victory piled up for the developmental squad during the first six to seven weeks of that season until one late September day when the varsity finally experienced that winning feeling against the kids.
With that in mind, one can’t help but wonder why didn’t Cicero just call up a couple of the talented youngsters in order to perhaps give the big team a chance to experience victory on the court at least once during that 0-20 season?
“The coaching staff has been together a long time,” said Cicero, who is in his 20th year as skipper and helped the program win Section VI and Super Sectional championships during his playing days with the Panthers. “In the past we have brought a kid up to get a win or two but that didn’t translate to going to a championship or more wins. I think we needed to start developing the Sweet Home volleyball program as a culture and that’s the decision we made.
“We decided to let the JV kids stay together, understand what winning is and stay together as a group.”
The plan has worked like a charm.
The Panthers reached the Section VI final last season – going from 0-20 to within a win of securing their first postseason championship since 1993. They lost in the final to perennial contender Hamburg.
That near title has been a source of motivation for this year’s edition, most of whom are returnees who have rarely experienced defeat during their time at the school (one loss in two years on JV and six in two years on varsity).
Sweet Home (11-3) is among the many teams who embark on Section VI championship quests later this week. The seeding meeting is scheduled for Wednesday with pre-quarterfinal contests slated for Friday.
The Panthers are expected to be part of a 12-team Division II-A bracket along with defending champion and old friend, Hamburg – which is looking for its eighth title in 14 years and fourth in five.
Sweet Home’s only losses are to Hamburg (twice in three matches) and Western New York No. 1 Large School Lockport (in the final of the Sweet Home tournament).
“That’s kind of been in the back of our heads the entire season,” said junior outside hitter Dylan Aarum, who leads the Panthers with 118 kills. “We’ve been working toward getting back there.”
“These kids understand we’re a very heavy senior group (with seven),” Cicero said. “Every year the team changes for better or worse. They’ve been giving it their all, all season. They have a goal to win sectionals and they’ve been working hard every day.”
Hard work and talent have gone hand in glove with this group as several members play the sport year round – including participating in clubs, open gym sessions and volleyball camps. The Panthers also get after it in practice.
It also does not hurt to have skilled athletes. The core includes junior Kaleb Luton, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. Luton has 112 kills. Alex Stoj is only 5-foot-7 but is a great leaper at outside hitter. Back-row specialists include Evan Bezak and Jack Hiwiller. State track champion Nate Davis also is on the team.
What was it like last year when this group took the court with 0-20 hanging over the program’s head?
Was the team annoyed it’s linked to it even though it had nothing to do with it? Were members of the team secretly smirking heading into matches against teams who may have found it hard to believe that a program could go from winless to title contender in an instant?
“They never really bring it up,” Cicero said.
“It’s like night and day,” said senior setter Jon Miller, whose older brother was on that winless team. “They weren’t bad players. I think the guys we have on the court this year and last year, we’re all good friends. We love hanging out with each other and I think it is that bond and friendship that keeps us together when stuff gets tough (during a match).”
It’s something that didn’t go unnoticed years ago by Cicero.
Better days indeed.
“A couple of us on JV probably could’ve been pulled up to varsity (in 2015) but they decided to make the decision of keeping us together on JV to continue building chemistry so that when we reached this level we’d already be very comfortable with each other,” Aarum said. “I think it’s worked out really well.”