OLD BRIDGE – Embodying “mental toughness” would be the best way, in the words of Coach Andrew Hopman, to describe the frame of mind his Old Bridge High School boys volleyball team had this past spring.
Focusing on only what they could control in every match they competed in during the 2021 campaign, Hopman saw his “determined” Old Bridge squad make a pursuit for a third overall state championship in four years and be successful in doing so.
The third state championship in program history was captured by the Knights on June 14 at South Brunswick High School, edging out Southern Regional High School for a 2-1 victory to bring home a third straight state title to Old Bridge.
“It feels surreal,” Hopman said about winning three straight state championships. “These guys are addicted to volleyball. They did whatever they could to get better and reach our goal. We took things one game at a time and focused on what we had to do to beat each opponent.”
Old Bridge is the second team since 1995 to pull off three consecutive state championships in boys volleyball, joining Cherry Hill East High School who did so from 1996 to 1998.
Each state championship has been rewarding in its own way, Hopman said, but said that this one in 2021 was “very rewarding” being that it was coming off not playing last year because of the coronavirus pandemic and dealing with an early-season shutdown.
After competing in its first scrimmage during the preseason, Old Bridge had to shut down for two weeks because a player on the team contracted COVID-19 and resulted in the Knights having to forgo their first five games of the season.
A couple of injuries to the starting lineup also added to the bumpy start Hopman and his team had to overcome.
All that said, Old Bridge was able to weather the storm with its “great depth” as Hopman said to go 14-2 in regular-season play.
The Knights saw players up and down their lineup have great seasons to contribute to the team’s great success in 2021.
Senior Brian Snook led the Knights in the kills category with 196, followed up by sophomore Blake Krapf who smashed 154 kills in his first year on varsity. Krapf led Old Bridge with 28 aces during the season.
In the assists department, senior Nick Schon was the man in the middle of all the action, tallying 564 assists.
Juniors Robert Obdyke and David Flores played great defensively in the back for the Knights. Obdyke racked up a team-high 257 digs, with Flores collecting 100 digs.
Other standouts for Old Bridge included senior Aaron LaPlaca and junior Pavlo Chernyshov. LaPlaca, who was the only returning player from Old Bridge’s state championship squad in 2019, tallied 96 kills and 25 digs.
Chernyshov, who battled an injury early on in the season, came on strong for the Knights when he got to full strength by completing a stat line of 95 kills, eight blocks and nine digs.
Senior Zachary Cuisinier led Old Bridge in blocks with 46 and also had 67 kills on the season.
“We had the most depth and the most diverse team,” Hopman said. “On any given day, we had someone different step up and help lead the team to victory.”
Playoff time was when Old Bridge took things into high gear.
Starting with the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament, Old Bridge dropped only two sets in the nine matches they would play to win a conference championship, a state sectional title and cap it all with another state championship.
“Our guys were on a mission right from the start of the GMC Tournament,” Hopman said. “We wanted to win the GMC just as much as we wanted to win sectionals and the state championship.”
Old Bridge recorded its third straight conference championship by sweeping past East Brunswick High School, 2-0, on May 27.
The next test for Old Bridge came in the NJSIAA Central Jersey final against Christian Brothers Academy on June 9.
CBA defeated Old Bridge during the regular season 2-0. Looking for a little payback to keep its pursuit for a three-peat alive, Old Bridge outlasted CBA in a thrilling 36-34 first set and then went on to get the sweep with a 25-18 victory in the second set to win the sectional title.
Chernyshov had a game-high eight kills in the match. Hopman applauded Chernyshov for his performance in the victory over CBA, saying he was “huge” in helping Old Bridge win the sectional championship.
The final step for the three-peat came in the state final against Southern Regional, who like CBA, got the best of Old Bridge in the regular season.
Old Bridge won the first set against Southern Regional by a score of 25-21, but saw the Rams battled back to take the second set with a 29-27 victory.
One last chance to make history and capture another state title was now at stake for Old Bridge.
Not letting the second set discourage them in any way, Old Bridge fought back to win the third set with a 25-21 victory, establishing themselves once again as the top dog in the state.
“They just really wanted to win badly and showed that on the court,” Hopman said of his players. “They worked really hard for it.”
LaPlaca and Snook led the way for the Knights in the championship bout, recording 11 and 10 kills, respectively. Chernyshov tallied eight kills in the victory over Southern.
Old Bridge concludes the 2021 campaign with a 23-2 record. In the last three seasons, Old Bridge and Hopman have recorded a mark of 97-9.
That’s a totally different story from when Hopman first took over the program back before the 2005 season and the Knights were coming off a rough 3-17 campaign.
Hopman is proud of how far the program has come during his 16 seasons as head coach, saying that he’s ready to move on and conquer another goal after each successful season.
That’s also the same mentality his squad has when entering each season as Old Bridge’s winning culture continues to be passed down to future generations.
“The winning culture is there,” Hopman said. “We have to work harder to keep it going. We have a target on our back. We know everyone is going to bring their best game when they face us.”