The Belleville boys volleyball team was right there with Livingston, holding a lead late in the second of a best of three series, in the annual Essex County Tournament finals on Saturday afternoon in Bloomfield. But the Lancers were just too much for the Buccaneers, who saw a late 19-16 lead, turn into a 25-19 Game 2 loss, losing the match, 2-0 (25-11, 25-19).
Belleville never got going in the opening game, with Livingston seizing almost immediate control and then cruising to a Game 1 victory. However, down 1-0 with their backs against the proverbial wall, the Buccaneers showed some fight and were actually in control for most of the second game.
"My kids unfortunately play nervous in every first game in a big match, and rightfully so," said Belleville head coach Paul Aiello. "Until you manage to master those feelings, you are going to suffer. ...You can't make errors, especially against a good team like Livingston."
The boys jumped out to an early lead and maintained it for most of the second match, but were unable to close or put any distance in between themselves and the Lancers. Livingston refused to let Belleville build any momentum.
Livingston called a timeout following net violation, putting the locals up 18-15. The Lancers allowed just one more Belleville point the rest of the way, closing the match on a 10-1 run to capture their second consecutive county championship.
For the Lancers, Kyle Rulka was basically unstoppable up front, picking up 14 kills in the victory, while Scott Levine helped with 24 assists. Rulka also helped defensively at the net, picking up three blocks, with Logan Corsello chipping in two blocks and six kills.
"Livingston has an incredible block and while I switched our rotation to block better, we go a lot of tips, but we didn't get a lot of blocks," Aiello said.
Julian Rodriguez led the way for Belleville, earning 13 kills and eight digs in an impressive performance. The problem was that no one else had a big day at the net for Belleville, limiting their offensive ability. Of course, Livingston's 37 digs in the back line had something to do with that. Thomas Rosario and Justin Remollino each had a pair of blocks and combined for five kills.
"I was very pleased with them. I thought our passing was extremely good and Carl [Laroco] and Emil [Amparo] passed extremely well from the back and so did Julian who got a lot of balls today," Aiello said. "Their passing was good, our setting was a little off of the net and we needed to be a little closer, I feel, in order to really dominate."
Both Belleville (17-6) and Livingston (19-4), now look forward to the state championships. The Bucs have a rematch on the road in Livingston on Monday, and then close the regular season with three consecutive home games, including a showdown on Wednesday at home against Bloomfield. The opening round of the tournament begins in earnest on Tuesday May 22. Both teams are expected to get good seeds and make deep runs into the postseason.
"I'm super proud of them. They had to beat Bloomfield, who was the two seed, in order to get here, and avenged a loss that was a pretty bad one. So that right there showed some mental toughness," Aiello said. "I'm really thrilled with the way they all pulled together."