It felt like old times at Shelton High School Friday night — former boys volleyball standouts Kevin Goncalves and Tim Zaprazalka were in the gymnasium and the Gaels were in the lead against Xavier High of Middletown.
Shelton battled like one of its powerhouse teams of the past, but couldn’t come up with the critical points to pull off the win as the Falcons took a 3-1 (20-25, 25-18, 26-24, 27-25) victory.
Senior Jan Kocur led the spirited play from the Gaels (1-2) notching 38 assists and three solo blocks.
Ben Malay and Craig Packnick were on the receiving end of several of Kocur’s tight sets, as the Gaels proved they are a dramatically improved team from the past two seasons.
“The plan this season is to bring this program back up to where it was,” Shelton coach LeAnne Bianchine said. “A huge part of that was bringing on Kevin Goncalves, who is my JV coach and my assistant. He is one of the former volleyball players who helped put all the banners on the wall.”
The Gaels also saw inspiration on the Xavier sideline where Zaprazalka, who played with Goncalves on Shelton’s state championship teams in 2004 and 2005, serves as the Falcons’ assistant coach.
Xavier (3-1) quickly found out that Shelton meant business, as the locals jumped out to a 4-1 lead with Connor Donegan slamming home a bump and Mackenzie Thompson pushing the ball into a hole in the Xavier defense.
A pair of unforced errors by Shelton and a resounding block by Xavier’s intimidating middle hitter Jack Dzidzic, brought the score back to 5-5 and the two teams stayed neck-and-neck for the next several points.
With the Gaels trailing 10-11, John Hunter (14 digs) sparked a six-point run with a gutsy one-handed dig that sailed over the net and slipped in for a score.
Erik Kocur then posted five service points, including an ace, to give Shelton a 16-11 lead.
Kills by Michael Torres and a consecutive block and spike by Packnick (12 kills) kept Shelton in the lead. Xavier looked to catch up near the end of the first game, but a clever tip and a solid dig by Malay gave Shelton two vital points and sealed the 25-20 win.
The Gaels looked poised to take the second game as Malay (17 kills) started off with back-to-back kills and Xavier committed two hitting errors to put the locals up 6-0.
The lead was short-lived, however, as Xavier’s middle hitters took control, slamming the ball to the court or forcing poor spike attempts by the Gaels.
With the score knotted at 9, Xavier rattled off a four-point run to steal the momentum.
Shelton battled back with solid hitting from Torres, Packnick and Malay and a slick pass by Thompson tied the game at 14.
Shelton just couldn’t find an answer for Xavier’s power up front, as the visitors posted five kills from dead center on their way to a 25-18 win.
Sensing the critical nature of the third game, both teams battled hard with neither getting too big of a lead.
Jan Kocur turned in a gritty performance, setting up Donegan and Malay for kills and posting a spike and a block early.
“Jan has the biggest heart of any kid I have ever known to play the game,” Bianchine said. “He doesn’t get caught in his own head. He hustles, which is important because we are not the best passing team, but that kid doesn’t let a ball get away from him. So he is definitely the heart behind this team.”
Malay brought the Gaels back from a two-point deficit with back-to-back kills in the middle of the game.
Dzidzic again spelled trouble late with a series of scoring hits to give Xavier a 23-21 lead, but Torres (five assisted blocks) came up with a resounding solo stop and Donegan tipped a bad bump in for a point that tied the score.
Jan Kocur set Malay for a kill that put the locals within one point of a win, but a hitting error and consecutive scores from the Xavier front line ripped the win away from Shelton and gave the Falcons a 26-24 win.
Despite the crushing loss, Shelton seemed ready to bounce back in the fourth game. Thompson posted two kills and Torres stonewalled a Xavier spike to give the Gaels a 9-5 lead.
Malay twice came up with blocks to keep the locals ahead and a series of poor hits by Xavier put Shelton up 15-11.
The lead could not withstand another dominating performance by Dzidzic and the Falcons’ front line. A block, a kill and three straight service points by Dzidzic put Shelton behind 21-19.
Xavier looked to close out the game with a 24-21 lead, but the Gaels refused to go down so easy, as Malay posted a kill and Erik Kocur skied over the net for a block to tie the score at 24.
Unfortunately for the Gaels, they let a point slip away on poor passing and Dzidzic ended the game with a block.
“Tonight they wanted it but they didn’t have it,” Bianchine said. “They were close to winning this game and we’re getting there as a team.
“This is only our third game, everyone else has had four or five games, so I have huge hopes for this team this year and even bigger for next year. But for this year, we will make the state tournament.
“I told them that I will take nothing less than getting to states. They have a lot of passion and I think that is the thing that will carry them through.”