By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group
Mike Grabon almost shudders at the mention of rebuilding.
To a senior like Grabon who has been a part of the Hillsborough High School boys volleyball program for four years, rebuilding is practically a curse word.
“We’re reloading,” said Grabon, who echoes the familiar theme espoused by head coach Todd Sudol.
This year, the Raiders again are playing with a new group after another class of starters graduated. Into their place Hillsborough has inserted five seniors, two of whom rotate at one position, and a junior and a sophomore.
“For the most part, it’s guys that are seniors and that’s working out,” Grabon said. “Vivek Mantha, an outside, is a sophomore. He got called up and he plays just as hard as any of us seniors.”
Even with all the new pieces in place, things came together quickly. They beat defending state champion Bridgewater-Raritan in their first game of the season. It was a promising start for the group and gave it a surge of pride to open the year.
“Right before the season, we were pretty confident in keeping the same standards as last year, which was an OK season,” Grabon said. “We had our Raider Invitational and played Southern and they’re No. 1 and we held it close. That’s the point we realized we could hang and play with any team.”
Solid senior leadership helps. Grabon, who started a few games as a sophomore and stepped into a full-time starting role as an outside hitter last year, took it upon himself to take the lead.
“Even when I’m not on the court, everyone looks to me or the other seniors to lead,” Grabon said. “We don’t take a play off.”
Hillsborough cruised by South Brunswick, 25-12, 25-23, on Monday. Mantha had 13 kills, Grabon had nine kills, Cole Norfleet delivered 27 assists and four digs, Matt DiDomenico had 16 digs, Artun Pecker had four kills and two digs, Jake Powell had two kills and five digs, Connor Sweeny had two kills and three digs and Matt Hendrix had a kill and four digs. The Raiders have stepped right into the vacant spots, particularly after key losses of their setter and an outside hitter.
“We had to make some changes in the offense this year,” Grabon said. “Last year, we’d be limited to certain plays. This year since everyone can kill the ball really well, our setter Cole Norfleet is talented enough to go back or outside or in the middle. We have way more options.”
Hillsborough dropped a three-game match to Hunterdon Central on Wednesday, but remain in second for the Skyland Conference. They handed frontrunner Bridgewater its lone conference loss this year.
“We weren’t expecting to be this good this early in the year,” Grabon said. “Once the year started, everyone started clicking. We’re always on each other’s back making sure we’re doing the right thing.”
As usual, the Raiders have built up their varsity with a collection of players with minimal experience compared to some programs. Like Grabon, most of Hillsborough’s players started in the sport as freshmen but they gravitate to it once they start.
“Everybody started as freshmen,” said Grabon, who is considering playing club volleyball at Michigan State University next year. “I played football in my freshman year, then some friends who played volleyball said I should try out. I gave up football because I started playing volleyball in the off-season because it’s so fun. You have to anticipate and think more than just do.”
Grabon has been steady all season for Hillsborough. With 108 kills through 12 games, he is well ahead of last year’s pace when he finished with 134 kills. He already has more blocks than a year ago as well. On top of his on-court play, he has been a leader and keeps the Raiders focused on playing to their potential.
“Volleyball is it’s more of a mental game,” he said. “We realized we’ll get spiked on, we’ll get blocked. It’s momentum. As long as we keep it positive, it’ll all work out. That’s what it’s all about.”
Hillsborough has proven it is right in the mix with the top teams. Three of its losses have come in tough three-game matches against outstanding squads, and the Raiders are starting to ramp up their play as they get back into some tougher matches after some less-challenging wins. They want to be ready when the postseason comes.
“The problem was we started off so strong that playing teams that aren’t so strong we weren’t as focused,” Grabon said. “We’re getting back to practicing and getting back to playing the way we were early and it’s working out.”
Hillsborough was scheduled to play at Hopewell Valley on Wednesday and will play at Watchung Hills on Tuesday, then host West Windsor-Plainsboro South next Wednesday. The Raiders are looking to fine-tune their play over the final weeks.
“It’s the teamwork and every fine detail in playing has to be spot on and sharp,” Grabon said. “When everyone has their A game and the sets are there, that’s when we play our best. That’s what we’re trying to do the second half of the season — no matter who’s in our way.”
By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group