NEWINGTON - The Newington boys volleyball team is preparing for its seventh Class M state title game in nine years, but tonight’s match with No. 2 Cheshire will present an added challenge in the form of a key absence.
Junior all-conference selection Mason Romano suffered a fractured ankle during a basketball game prior to Tuesday night’s semifinals matchup with Wethersfield, and while the Indians still swept the No. 4 Eagles to keep their quest for a three-peat alive, they know the challenge that lies ahead without their star middle hitter.
“Mason is a phenomenal player,” outside hitter Louis Egbuna said. “I think he’s an All-State player and unfortunately he got hurt. But we have variety on our team.”
Top-seeded Newington (20-2) showed off that variety on Tuesday when Riley Miller recorded 11 assists in Romano’s spot, while junior Keenan Esau added seven of his own in an increased role, giving head coach Curt Burns more options for the state title match at Shelton High School at 7 p.m.
“We made some adjustments,” Burns said. “Riley played some middle during club season, so he’s not totally unfamiliar with it, and it opened up an opportunity for Keenan to get more time. He’s still an experienced player on the floor. Every player that started [in the semifinals] played in the state final last year. It’s a very experienced group. We would love to have [Romano], but we have a ‘next man up’ mentality.”
That experience will be put to the test against Cheshire (18-4), which is seeking the program’s third state championship after winning Class L in 2010 and 2011.
While the Indians beat the Rams 3-1 twice during the regular season, both matches saw both teams record at least 20 points in every set, and Romano was on the floor for both contests. Given the closeness of the sets and Romano’s absence, tonight’s final will be anything but a breeze for Newington.
“Everyone there is great with the ball,” Egbuna said of Cheshire’s group. “They can set the ball perfectly. But we just have to worry about our game. We’re just worried about getting a three-peat and worrying about what we have to do. That’s when we’re at our best.”
The Indians are of course also at their best with Romano on the floor, but the team also realizes that they didn’t win two straight state championships with just one player. Teddy Fravel, who came up huge in the semifinals with a team-high 14 kills, should be a big factor in tonight’s match with fellow middle hitter Romano on the sidelines.
“It’s a big loss,” Fravel said. “He’s a big hitter and he puts the ball away. But we have so many strong and experienced players who have been in state championships before. We can do it without him. If other teams came into the state semifinals without one of their best players, it would definitely faze them. But nothing can faze us.”
The Indians still have two All-CCC selections on their team in Egbuna and Leonel Caceres. Romano will be watching from the bench in a walking boot, but his confidence is also unshakeable. He has watched his teammates all year and while he wishes he was out on the court to end the Indians’ season with another state title, he believes he will still be celebrating one, even though it won’t be in uniform.
“I have all the confidence in the world in those guys,” Romano said. “They put the work in every day. I’m not even scared or worried at all.”
The Rams won’t be worried either, coming into the final after sweeping away No. 6 Farmington in the semifinals, where Southern Connecticut Conference Player of the Year Colby Hayes had 15 kills, three blocks and a dig, and No. 10 Masuk in the quarterfinals. Cheshire is 0-2 against Newington, but those matches feel like a long time ago. All that matters now is the one that will be played on Thursday in Shelton.
“They swept Farmington, which is a very good team, and we swept Wethersfield, which is also a very good team,” Burns said. “So we’re both coming in hot. It should be good.”
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or firstname.lastname@example.org