SHELTON — We knew that, based on their undefeated record, the members of the Staples boys volleyball team were pretty good at their craft. What no one knew, however, was how this team would react when facing the prospect of actually losing.
Tonight — in the Wreckers’ 25th game of the season, in the Class L championship against Ridgefield — it happened. The Wreckers were challenged, all right. And when it was over they had answered the only question that remained about them this year.
After watching a 2-0 lead turn into a fifth and deciding set against the Tigers – the first time Staples had been pushed to a fifth set this season – the Wreckers found a way. Led by Stedman van Arsdale, they managed to hold off Ridgefield by scoring four of the final five points to win the deciding set 15-13.
“Ridgefield certainly made us earn it,” Staples coach Dan Cho said after the Wreckers had captured the school’s first state crown in five years with a 25-16, 26-24, 22-25, 20-25, 15-13 victory. “After we won the second set, we knew Ridgefield would push back.”
What Cho and everyone else inside Shelton High School did not know was how the Wreckers would react in a crisis, which they found themselves in after losing the third and fourth sets thanks to the sensational play of Ridgefield senior Christian DeVivo. DeVivo led the Tigers with a personal best 42 kills, 13 digs and eight service points.
The Wreckers also trailed 12-11 in the final set. But van Arsdale, Luke Press, William Hotch, Logan Carstens and Noah Greenberg took a deep breath and survived.
“It was our first five-setter of the year so it was new to us,” said van Arsdale, who led the Wreckers with 22 kills and eight blocks. “It was back and forth emotions. We got off to bad starts in the third and fourth sets and we knew we had to get off to a good start in the fifth set.”
The No. 1-seeded Wreckers did take a 4-1 lead in the deciding set but still trailed 12-11. It was gut-check time and after Press tied it with one of his 11 kills (to go with 10 digs), the Wreckers quickly took a 14-12 lead before a net violation pulled the No. 2-seeded Tigers (22-4) within one. But then the Wreckers looked for the tallest player on the court.
“I told (Carstens) I wanted the ball,” said van Arsdale, referring to the Staples setter. “So he put it up for me and I whacked it and then hoped for the best.”
The Ridgefield front line did manage to get a partial block on van Arsdale’s hit, but the ball fell on the Ridgefield side of the net and the Staples celebration was under way.
The victory could not diminish the Ridgefield effort. Think about what the Tigers were up against after losing the second set:
Staples had already beaten Ridgefield three times, including once for the FCIAC championship. Staples took an 8-0 lead in the first set, which should have put a serious dent in the Tigers’ confidence. Then Staples rallied behind Dave Kalinowski, who had two blocks and two kills in the final four points of the second set, as the Wreckers took a seemingly insurmountable 2-0 lead.
“Kalinowski was huge in the second set,” Cho said. “Before the end of the set I asked the team, ‘Who’s going to step up?’ Dave did and really showed leadership.”
Closing out the second set should have ended any threat of Staples facing a fifth-set challenge on this night.
It did not.
“We were never scared,” Ridgefield coach Lidania Cibere said. The Tigers would have been undefeated this season if not for the four games against Staples. “Falling behind 8-0 early was bad, you don’t ever want to give the early lead to a team like Staples. But we kept working hard, we never gave up.”
The Tigers managed to stay alive mostly due to the efforts of DeVivo.
“Christian was great,” Cibere said. “He’s been in big games before and really came through.”
“It was one of my best performances,” DeVivo added. “It was the highest I’ve jumped, and the hardest I’ve played.”
It seemed every one of DeVivo’s kills was placed perfectly.
“He consistently hit spots we weren’t in,” Cho said.
But in the end the Wreckers responded to the challenge and won their sixth Class L title since 2006 to go along with the four Class M crowns they won from 2001-04.
Ridgefield, meanwhile, was looking for its fifth state championship and its fourth in five years after missing out last season.
Hotch finished with 10 kills and four digs for Staples, while Carstens had three aces, six kills, 53 assists and 13 digs. Greenberg added 27 digs for the Wreckers.
Aside from DeVivo’s historic night, Chris Knachel had 11 kills and 16 service points, Andrew Knachel had 57 assists, William Hunter had 15 digs and Tom Groves had four blocks.
NOTES: Staples beat Ridgefield 3-0 in the two regular-season meetings on April 9 and April 16 before the FCIAC final on May 25, which was the fifth straight season Ridgefield was FCIAC runner-up. … Since 2001, the two teams had reached the state final a total of 18 times (Staples 12, Ridgefield 6).