Glendale -- The Nicolet Knights boys volleyball team is now one win away from their third consecutive trip to the State Championship Tournament.
Facing off against the Neenah Rockets on Tuesday night, the top-seeded Knights made quick work of their opponent, winning by scores of 25-13, 25-12 and 25-18, in the sectional semi-final matchup.
“We did the things we wanted to,” senior middle hitter Rob Mayer said. “We all really contributed tonight. It was really a team effort.”
In the third and ultimately final game, Nicolet took an early 7-0 lead but allowed Neenah to cut it to 16-12 and build momentum throughout the comeback. But the Knights were able to do enough to hold on and secure the win.
“The first and second games were pretty good,” senior setter Anatoli Berezovsky said. “But we kind of let loose a little bit in the third game. It was a mental lapse.”
Nicolet will now face either Homestead or Arrowhead in the sectional final on Thursday with a spot in the State Tournament awaiting the winner.
Earlier in the season, the Knights swept Homestead and split games with Arrowhead in the team’s first tournament of the season.
“We’re a totally different team now than we were then,” Nicolet head coach Brad Kuehl said. “We’ve changed our lineup around and we’ve made things different. No matter who we play, a sectional final is a sectional final; it’s going to be a war. You’ve got to come to play. If you don’t, you’re going to get beat.”
After losing recent matches to both Marquette and Wauwatosa East to finish third in the Greater Metro Conference, Nicolet was glad to have Berezovsky back on the court after missing time due to illness.
“When Anatoli was out sick, everything was out of whack,” Kuehl said. “The last week in practice was really good. We needed this just to get back in the swing of things, get our confidence back, and kind of start setting the tone for what our end-goal is.”
The Knights were the State runner-ups in 2008, losing to Marquette in the finals. So at the beginning of this season when the team talked about their goals, they knew that the only way to finish better than last year was to win it all this time around.
“We want a state championship for sure,” Berezovsky said. “But we take it one game at a time. We’re getting there. We’re for sure getting there. We have to work on our blocking and our defense around the net. But offensively I think we’re a pretty dominant team.”
For Berezovsky and Mayer, both seniors who have been playing on varsity since their freshmen year, would it take a State Championship in order to view this season as an overall success?
“Yeah, I would say so,” Mayer said. “We definitely want to improve on last year and (the only way to do that is to) win a State Championship.”
Kuehl is looking at the bigger picture.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a championship or bust year,” Kuehl said. “Nicolet volleyball has bounced back no matter what. But our goal was to win it all this year. There are a lot of good teams left to play, but we have a good road and a good chance and we just have to finish and do it.”
Kuehl noted that Berezovsky started right from opening day his freshman year and that Mayer came up about halfway through his first season.
“Just the fact that in their four years they’ve made four sectional finals now, that’s a big accomplishment,” Kuehl said. “Every year they’ve finished in the top 16 teams in the state. When they were freshmen, we lost in the sectional final to a very good Homestead team.”
Kuehl has been impressed with the progress that his two star players have made in the past four years.
“Anatoli’s been the leader of this team for three years,” he said. “He was voted as a captain as a sophomore, which is almost unheard of. He’s really the one who’s taken everything, the bull by the horns, and led these guys. Having him out there is like having another coach out there.”
Mayer, who dominated the net against Neenah in the sectional semi-final match, played every position since arriving in 2006.
“With Rob, he’s been so versatile for this program every year,” Kuehl said. “He’s not a vocal leader, but he’s an emotional leader and he leads by example. When we need a big point, we need a big kill, we can trust Rob’s going to go up and get it.”
And the two seniors certainly hope all of the hard work will pay off by ending their Nicolet High School volleyball careers with a State Championship.
“It would be unbelievable,” Mayer said.