By MIKE PETRO
Special to The News
Kevin Starr didn’t waste any time finding a way to motivate his Clarence boys volleyball team for the season.
On the first day of practice, the coach pointed to the boys volleyball banner in the gym that read 1999, the last time the Red Devils had won a sectional and divisional title, and told his players this group was destined to put the next banner on the wall at the school.
The third-seeded Red Devils did just that Tuesday night at Lackawanna High School, finishing off a run through Section VI Division I with a three-set sweep of top-seed Lockport, 25-21, 25-13, 28-26.
“Every week, we’d look at the banner determined to put 2016 up there,” Starr said. “We knew we had something this year.”
Earlier, fifth-seeded Hamburg earned the Division II-A title by sweeping No. 3 Sweet Home in three sets, 25-14, 25-21, 25-14. Hamburg had upset top-seeded Williamsville East in four sets Saturday to advance to the finals.
“We caught fire at the right time,” Hamburg coach Brian Carroll said. “We’ve been getting better every day in practice. This has been a real fun team to work with.”
Hamburg will meet Eden in the Division II crossover final Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Lackawanna. Eden, one of Western New York’s most successful volleyball programs, won its 28th sectional title, the first since 2010, by sweeping Maryvale, 25-19, 25-18, 25-18, in the Division II-B championship.
“This one really does feel good,” Eden coach Robert Pierce said. “I’ve had some better teams on paper but this team is just resilient. They deal with adversity and stay pretty calm. They’re showing maturity beyond their years.”
In Division I, Lockport jumped to an opening set 9-4 lead, but from there Clarence took over and dominated the first two sets. The Lions fought hard in the final set and had match point leading by 24-22, but couldn’t extend the match.
“We had talked about what we needed to do to take them out of their game and we had a little bit of hard time getting that going,” Starr said. “They’re a very strong team but we felt like going to our strength would take them out of theirs.”
Going to their strength meant feeding senior 6-foot-4 standout Henry Payne, who finished with 21 kills and 14 digs. The Penn State-commit was dominant, consistently thrashing unreturnable balls over the net.
Starr said whenever the team gets in trouble, he tells his setter Shawn Trznadel (31 assists) to go to Payne. He doesn’t care if the entire gym knows it.
“We knew if we just played our game, we’d be able to win,” Payne said.
Leading NFL-champion Lockport was senior Treston White with nine kills and sophomore Rhees Perry with 13 digs. The Lions knocked off defending champion Orchard Park in five sets to advance to the final.
About three weeks ago, Carroll turned to his Hamburg team and told them, “We’re ready.”
The Bulldogs had struggled during the season, to that point, but their coach noticed a maturation in the team’s junior setters Jake Storey and Liam McCormmick. Hamburg picked up some key wins to finish the regular season and continued the momentum into the postseason. Leading the Bulldogs’ offense in the Division II-A match were seniors Jon Gordner, Alex Andrzejewski and Gage Schneider, junior Stefan Marjanovic and sophomore Jake Couzens.
“At the beginning of the season, we weren’t really a team yet but through some big wins over Canisius and Frontier we really started clicking and that’s what got us this far,” Gordner said. “I think we played incredible tonight.”
The Bulldogs won a sectional title for the seventh time in the last 13 years, including three in the last four seasons.
“They know they have a legitimate shot every year,” Carroll said. “They want to carry on the torch that the other guys in the past left for them.”
Sweet Home was led by senior Colin May’s seven kills and the play of junior back row specialist Jack Hiwiller. The Panthers went from a winless season in 2015 to this year’s championship match.
In Division II-B, top-seed Eden put it all together - big serving, trustworthy passing and crucial contributions from its middle hitters. Senior middles Connor Higgins finished with 13 kills and Jesse Brockman added 12, nicely complimenting the team’s offensive leaders on the outside, juniors Collin Rigley and Drew Hesse.
“It’s nice to have a balanced attack and to not have to rely on my big hitters, Collin and Drew, as much and just let someone else go to work,” Pierce said.
Eden volleyball teams aren’t accustom to going multiple years without a sectional title.
“We’ve had a couple of teams the last few years that have come so close and I think a lot of the guys remember how it feels to get close and not get it,” Rigley said.
Pierce expects Hamburg to present a challenge physically in the crossover final but he thinks his team matches up well.
“It’s going to get harder as we go up,” he said. “We’ll rely on our serve and passing game. I think that will get us in the match and we’ll see where it goes from there.”