EAST HARTFORD - If you ask anyone one on the Newington boys volleyball team, they would all tell you, their biggest rival is Southington High School.
“Its huge,” Newington senior Evan Metzar said, “Since my freshman year, I have marked it on my calendar, it’s the biggest game of the year.”
But for Southington, the rivalry is quite new.
“We never knew about it until two years ago,” Southington head coach Lou Gianacopolos said. “Newington came up to us one day and said, ‘we had an unbeaten JV team, and we played you at the end of the season.’ And that JV team, we came in, and beat them really bad. And now that’s the seniors and the juniors. Ever since then, when [Newington] had its moment of winning against us, they just exploded.”
That is when Gianacopolos found out, this was a big rivalry for them. The Blue Knights thought it would be fun if they made it a friendly rivalry.
“I coach their kids in the offseason,” Gianacopolos said. “I coach them in the Huskies Volleyball Program, so the relationship before a match, they come over. They come over, give me a hug, say hello. Their parents come over and say hello.”
The rivalry and that relationship, Gianacopolos said is what makes it.
“I love these boys,” Metzgar said. “I go to Huskies with them, I know them personally. On the court we’re enemies, off the court were brothers.”
After the conclusion of the CCC Tournament final game, which saw Newington lose 3-1, there was no anger or sadness. With smiles on their faces, the Indians hugged and congratulated every one of the Blue Knights.
“I honestly don’t think it’s much of a rivalry,” Southington senior William Pfanzelt said. “We’ve been playing club for years and I think we’re all good friends.”
“We know everyone, every player,” Newington junior Leonel Caceres said. “Off the court were friends but on the court it’s all about who’s going to win.
But one fact people might not know, now the Indians and the Blue Knights have played each other 22 times and Southington’s win on Thursday makes the two teams 11-11 after the Blue Knights won the season series 2-1.
“We took the lead [last] Monday at 11-10,” Newington head coach Curt Burns said. “And now they have just evened it out. It’s just amazing how even it is.”
And with seeing one another twice in the span of the past week, it should help both teams heading into their respective state tournaments. To beat the best, teams often have to play top competition along the way.
The Indians earned the top seed in Class M after finishing their regular season 18-2 with a nine-game win streak.
As the No. 1 seed, the Indians earned a first-round bye and won’t be seeing any action until Friday, where they’ll face the winner of eighth-seeded Farmington, which is 9-8, or ninth-seeded Daniel Hand, which is 10-9. Regardless of who Newington will play, the Indians will host the match.
As for Southington, it has earned the fifth seed in Class L. The Blue Knights finished their regular season 15-3 and will host 12th-seeded Shelton on Wednesday.
From there, if Southington advances, it will play the winner of No. 4 East Hartford/No. 13 Glastonbury which will take place Friday at 6 p.m.
In order for both teams to perform to the best of their abilities, they need one thing - rest.
Over the past week leading up to the state tournaments Newington and Southington both played games on Friday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The Blue Knights even had to play an extra match before the finals on Thursday.
Southington was forced to make up a match that was supposed to be scheduled early in the season, but the two never got around to it, until it mattered.
The CIAC told Gianacopolos last Wednesday, the day before the CCC Tournament final took place, the Blue Knights needed to make up another match before they could head into the state tournament play.
“When they sprung that on us, that match didn’t mean anything to us,” Gianacopolos said. “It wasn’t for any standings, whether is was M or L, the CIAC said we had to play it. I wanted to forfeit it but we they wouldn’t let us.”
The Indians are also been feeling the wear on their bodies. Although rest is important, Newington has already scheduled several scrimmages against teams that are in the top seeds of Class L.
“There’s no lollygagging, no easy games,” Metzgar said. “We want to stay competitive with other teams and see some good competition. We want to be pushing ourselves. We’re not done yet.”
Over the course of the next week, the Indians we’ll see teams like Staples, the top seed in the Class L tournament.
“[Staples] is one of the top teams in the state,” Caceres said. “It’s going to be great competition for us to prepare us for Class M.”
For both the Indians and the Blue Knights, they want one thing when it comes to the state tournament. Each wants and expects to claim the championship and walk away with a ring.
Newington has won four state titles in the last six years and the Indians are hoping that this year will make five in seven.
Last season, Southington was the fifth seed too and made is as far as the quarterfinal where it then fell 3-0 to East Hartford, the eventual runner-up. The Blue Knights haven’t won a state championship since 2010 and were the runner-ups in 2014.
“Our objective is to take one team at a time,” Southington senior J.J. Clarke said. “Our objective is Shelton right now, we’re going to focus on them and see what they have. We’re going to look at some film see where their strengths are, see where their weaknesses are and attack. We want to make it to finals, but we just have to keep working and hopefully we’ll get there and win the state.”
Shelby Iava can be reached at (860) 801-5096 or firstname.lastname@example.org