The Eden boys volleyball team figures to get defensive every time it takes the court for a match this season, but it's not because the Raiders feel disrespected by their opponents.
The defending Class B intersectional champions would be upset with themselves if they didn't act this way during a match because letting an opponent's serve or spike attempt hit the floor without one or more Raiders keeping the point alive by any means necessary simply would be upsetting to the members of the program that's regarded as the best by all of Western New York's coaches.
"They just get touches on blocks and stuff and their defense is good enough to dig it to the guys they need to hit it," said Canisius coach Brian Lombardo, after his Crusaders lost to Eden in the semifinals of the 19th Clarence Invitational last Saturday in two not-so-close games. "All of their kids start (playing) at a young age so even if they don't keep on playing they've already developed the fundamentals at an early age."
Selling a defense-first philosophy isn't easy when dealing with adolescents anxious to prove their superiority aggressively on offense, but this mature Eden crew has shown it gets even more pleasure out of winning a point by transitioning into offense after digging out a seemingly irretrievable serve or spike attempt. It's a skill the Raiders flaunted often Saturday in winning their second straight Clarence Invitational. Eden beat Orchard Park, 23-25, 25-17, 15-11 to win the 16-team event that featured the area's top public and parochial school programs. The Quakers were the only team to win a game from the Raiders, but even that proved to be mentally and physically draining as the Raiders' relentlessness enabled them to win the big points that decide close matches the rest of the way.
"We love it," said junior setter Jake Waszak, who is one of five returning starters. "We see the looks on their faces when we get good digs, you can tell they're frustrated. You get a good dig off of someone and you run it in transition and you get a good kill, you can tell they're frustrated."
Defense is the key to success at the elite club level. It's also the winning formula for teams who play at a high level in California and Puerto Rico.
"Anybody can hit a ball, anybody can swing at the ball," said Raiders coach Robert Pierce, who runs the Eden Club Program with his older brother and girls' program pilot Stephen. "The team that plays defense and really makes it difficult for these teams who expect the points to come very easy, you wear them down.
"It's hard. The boys (usually) just want to go out and hit. They just want to go out and pound. They want to serve aces. To focus on defense, the finer points of the game and that philosophy, these guys have bought into. And I couldn't necessarily sell that to all my other teams but I'm really going to harp on it from now on because it seems to be pretty successful."
And it appears to be a formula that could help the Raiders add to the 23 sectional and seven intersectional championships in their trophy case.
Eden graduated just two players, but one of them was All-Western New York selection Chad Proudman. Still, Robert Pierce said this is the easiest team he's had to coach in his eight seasons because he has so many technically sound players who are versatile.
The kingpin is the 5-foot-10 Waszak, who earned most valuable player honors at the Clarence Invitational after compiling 125 assists, 17 aces and 15 digs. Waszak, who had 38 assists and two aces against Orchard Park, trained for the second year in a row with the USA High Performance National Team, an honor bestowed upon the top 24 players in the nation.
Other returnees include 6-foot junior Thomas Klein, a good jumper who earned all-star honors at the Clarence Invitational. He finished the event with 77 kills, 33 digs and seven blocks. He is also in the Team USA Olympic pipeline as he trained with the developmental team that's a notch below the High Performance National Team. He also won a gold medal with the Empire State Games team. Junior libero Ed Dirosa (55 digs) and seniors Brian Baur (35 kills, 7 aces, 6 blocks) and Sam Beiter (22 digs) also performed well in the season-opening tournament.
Joe Norton is starting for the first time and the 6-4 junior compiled four of his team high 17 blocks in the Clarence Invitational against the Quakers.
"This is the team I'm most excited about," Pierce said. "They're driven. They have a lot of inner motivation and they really enjoy playing together and it's pretty evident when you watch. They're just all over the place. They're the most skilled, polished and focused team I've ever coached."