Tom Mulherin’s volleyball tournament preview and picks – Boston Herald

After years of keeping one eye anxiously open toward the possibility of Needham’s historic reign coming to an end, here we are about to start a fourth straight Div. 1 boys volleyball state tournament with the three-time defending champions entering as the top seed.

The No. 1 Rockets’ (18-2) two losses to second-seeded Newton North (17-3) this season are their only losses in the last four years, which means they’ve only lost to one team despite playing the state’s second-hardest strength of schedule. Even when they aren’t playing their best, they’ve found ways to win through continuous well-rounded efforts and an emphasis on serve receive behind premier libero Owen Ching. Both Brian Cloonan and Luke Lorence have also taken over matches.

If not for the No. 2 Tigers, Needham has made its case as the favorite for a fourth straight title. And if they do pull it off, which we should never count them out from, it would be a masterpiece in a long line of dominance.

But Newton North is very difficult to pick against. Senior Adam Christianson is widely regarded as the state’s best player, surrounded by elite athletes in Simon Vardeh and middles Sam Huang and Peter Reale. Paul Nelson is a top complementary hitter, Joaquin Cuevas-Torres is a reliable setter, and Brady Dwyer rivals Ching as a premier libero.

The two teams are on a collision course to meet in the state final for a second straight year, and it would be almost poetic for the reigning runner-up Tigers to break up Needham’s streak of championships after snapping its 77-game win streak earlier in the year.

Yet, there are plenty of teams that have strong chances of getting in the way.

Familiar foe No. 3 Natick (15-3) has a loud voice in the favorites conversation, featuring a dynamic duo in Branch Barnes and setter Harrison Landry within another deep roster. The RedHawks lost twice to Needham in the regular season but were able to beat every other of the many contenders they played.

No. 4 Milford (13-5) is another scary team and closed the regular season with a win over Newton North, boasting high-powered hitting options in Alex Guerra, Arthur Gomes, and middles Joey Newman and Ryan Franklin. Don’t sleep on No. 5 Methuen (18-2), though, riding the momentum of its first Merrimack Valley Conference title since 1998 behind excellent defense and powerful hitting from seniors James Levesque and Drew Eason.

If Christianson is the state’s top player, No. 6 Winchester (16-4) could have the second-best in Jamie Watt. The Red and Black are one of several dangerous teams to get in Natick’s path, joined by a No. 14 Cambridge (10-10) team that’s better than its record. No. 11 Lexington (14-5) beat Winchester in its current seven-game win streak and a potential meeting in the second round would be the ultimate rubber match between the two.

Needham has the looming threat of a No. 16 North Quincy team (11-9) that entered the year as a notable contender. Then there’s No. 8 Brookline (13-7), which returned a lot from last year’s Cinderella run to the Final Four and took the Rockets to five sets this year. No. 9 Lowell (17-3) is as athletic as any team out there as well to pose a threat.

No. 10 New Bedford (20-0) was the state’s only unbeaten team this year and has immeasurable confidence. The Cleary brothers help make No. 7 BC High (18-2) dangerous, while No. 13 Lincoln-Sudbury (11-7), No. 15 Acton-Boxboro (13-6), No. 18 St. John’s Prep (11-8) and No. 21 St. John’s of Shrewsbury (9-10) have taken down powers in the regular season to stand as potential heart-breakers.

Other teams out of the MVC are always candidates to turn some heads, too, led by No. 12 Chelmsford (14-6).

In Div. 2, part of what makes this tournament exciting is how the expansion from 60 teams to 81 in the last two years has impacted the playoff field. There will be 14 preliminary games, meaning qualified teams seeded as high as No. 19 Lynn Classical will need to add a game to their tournament path.

As for championship contention, No. 1 Westfield (18-3) and No. 2 Agawam (16-3) are well-positioned for consecutive meetings in the final – one the Brownies won last year in the sport’s first all-Western Mass. state title game. Both controlled most of their respective schedules, with each beating the No. 3 Wayland (12-8) team that figures to be the closest threat. The Bombers technically beat Agawam twice this year, but one came via forfeit well after the Brownies edged out a five-set thriller.

Bracket fillers should feel comfortable with slotting those three for spots in the Final Four, but from there it’s awfully close.

No. 4 North Middlesex (16-4) challenged itself with a tougher schedule and navigated it well to stand as the favorite for the fourth spot. A potential state quarterfinal matchup with No. 5 Longmeadow (15-4) is one to circle, though there is a minefield of upsets to monitor all over this tournament beforehand.

No. 13 Minnechaug (11-9) has several quality wins this year and could get in the way of North Middlesex in the second round. The same goes for No. 12 Marlboro (13-5) in a potential matchup with Longmeadow.

No. 6 Latin Academy (15-6) represented the Boston City League well this year and is hopeful for a deeper run, but No. 11 Greater Lowell (18-2) spells trouble should it get out of the first round.

No. 8 West Springfield (12-7) lost to Westfield twice in the regular season but familiarity could be on its side in pursuit of an upset. No. 15 Chelsea (14-4) and No. 18 Granby (18-2) are two young programs set for a quality battle before potentially facing Agawam. No. 7 Medfield (14-6) also could be in line for an intriguing matchup with No. 10 Keefe Tech (17-3) in the second round.

Div. 1
Champion: No. 2 Newton North
Final Four: No. 1 Needham, No. 2 Newton North, No. 3 Natick, No. 4 Milford
Sleeper: No. 11 Lexington
Potential Upset: No. 21 St. John’s (S) over No. 12 Chelmsford
Best First Round Matchup: No. 15 Acton-Boxboro vs. No. 18 St. John’s Prep

Div. 2
Champion: No. 1 Westfield
Final Four: No. 1 Westfield, No. 2 Agawam, No. 3 Wayland, No. 5 Longmeadow
Sleeper: No. 13 Minnechaug
Potential Upset: No. 11 Greater Lowell over No. 6 Latin Academy
Best First Round Matchup: No. 15 Chelsea vs. No. 18 Granby

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