Bears contending with inconsistent volleyball season

By Jimmy Allinder

The East Brunswick High School boys’ volleyball team has experienced more ups and downs than an elevator this season, which is unusual for a program that finishes at or near the top of the Greater Middlesex Conference (GMC) standings.

The Bears were 6-7 overall and 5-3 in the conference behind front-runner Old Bridge High School (14-2 overall, 7-1 GMC) and John P. Stevens High School (11-4 overall, 6-4 GMC) before meeting Saint Joseph High School of Metuchen (12-11 overall, 5-4 GMC) May 1. It’s not likely East Brunswick will overtake Old Bridge for the title, but the Bears still have the conference and state tournaments to atone for the regular season.

“We’re off to a rocky start,” said coach Christian Portera, a former East Brunswick player who took over this year for Greg Rutz. “A number of quality players graduated from last year and with [senior] Kyle Loesner out for an extended time due to injury, it has turned into a developmental year.”

Loesner’s loss has weakened East Brunswick’s offensive resolve and also hurts in the leadership department. The graduation of Yoni Auerbach, Jeff Chen, Keith Kuchenbroad, Marco Loncar, Tom Pappas and Jeff Tong from a team that finished 27-7 overall in 2016 has particularly caused defensive difficulties.

Without Loesner, East Brunswick puts a lineup on the court that includes seniors Andrew Gula, setter (259 assists); Tom Murray, opposite (76 kills); Ben Harrop, middle (89 kills); and Matt Jensen, defensive specialist (65 digs). Others include juniors Paul Anania, outside (68 digs); Max Mekhanikov, middle; and Josh Safeer, middle/outside. Sophomore libero Ash Calleja (63 digs) also contributes.

“We have the talent and ability to become successful,” Portera said. “We’ve been strong serving and can score points, but we’re using a lot of young players who are new to the varsity. The expectation is they’ll grow every day and keep improving. The future of East Brunswick volleyball is still bright.”

Following the match with St. Joe’s, the Bears wrapped up the regular season with four road matches against South Brunswick High School May 3, Bloomfield High School May 4, North Brunswick Township High School May 5 and a return meeting at St. Joe’s May 10.

The GMC Tournament was scheduled for May 12-20, and the state tournament was set to begin May 23. Seeds and first-round pairings for both tournaments have yet to be announced.

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