Story by Ella Brockway

If there’s anything harder than getting to the top, it’s staying there, year after year.

The Southern Regional Rams are familiar with this concept. After eleven consecutive state top-five finishes, seven consecutive appearances in the state finals match, and thirteen consecutive division championships, they should be.

The secret to four state championships in seven years and six Shore Conference Tournament championships in a row?

Head coach Eric Maxwell says it’s all in the players.

“We’ve been blessed with a lot of talented players, and I think that once you have a certain level of success, people want to be part of the program,” he says. “I think we’ve had a lot of athletes at Southern who have seen us and said, well, I want to have a chance to play for a state title, too.”

In the past sixteen years, Maxwell has built arguably the most dominant volleyball program in the Shore Conference, and one of the best in New Jersey. The Rams have continued their streak of success this spring: nearing the very end of their schedule, they hold a 38-2, 12-0 record and the number one spot in the NJ.com Top 20 state rankings. Earlier this month, they swept Wall in a 25-16, 25-16 win to claim the 2016 Shore Conference Tournament title, their seventh in the program’s history.

The Rams finished the week of May 15 with seven straight wins, including four that came at the Super Six Showcase over Harrison, St. Joseph, Bridgewater-Raritan and East Brunswick.

Senior outside hitter and Player of the Year candidate Liam Maxwell currently leads the state in total kills (494) and leads the team in aces with 42 on the season. The Belmont Abbey commit registered his 1,000th career kill earlier this season, in a loss to Harrison on May 7th. With a total of 1,191 kills in his career as of May 23, Maxwell is just the 17th player in state history to crack 1,000 kills. Maxwell has also reached 500 career digs and 200 career assists during his time with the Rams, and is on track to reach 100 career blocks this season.

Coach Maxwell calls Liam (who is not only his star player, but also his nephew) one of Southern’s hardest workers and best leaders, a combination of characteristics that has led to success both on and off the court for the program.

“We haven’t had prima donna athletes in the program who think so highly of themselves that they think they can get away with things,” he says. “I hold the players accountable, but they also hold themselves accountable to be good role models and to be good workers in the gym every day, and that carries over and makes my job easier because it’s coming from the guys’ peers instead of just from the head coach.”

Another key to the success of this program year after year, says Maxwell, is its depth.

“As good as Liam is, we’ve had a bunch of great players, and (realized that) you’re only as good as your depth,” he says. “One guy can’t carry you on the court. It’s three contacts every time on your side of the net. You need somebody to defend, somebody to pass the ball, somebody to set the ball, and somebody who can put it away, so you need depth and team chemistry.”

The depth that Maxwell references is a group of players that includes junior right side hitter Collin Lockwood (181 service points, 186 digs on the season), senior outside hitter Ryan Brady (123 kills this season), and junior setter Brennan Davis.

Davis recorded his 1,000th career assist in Southern’s 2-0 win over Bergen Catholic. Just about three-quarters of those assists--739, to be exact--have come this season.

“Brennan’s our setter, and the offense runs through him,” Maxwell states. “If he’s not getting the ball and getting it to our hitters, then they’re not looking good either…(volleyball) is the ultimate team sport, where one guy can’t contact the ball three times and score a point for you.”

In this year’s SCT Final win over Wall, Maxwell finished with 19 kills, and Davis with 25 assists to take the title in straight sets. The Rams swept their way through the conference tournament, collecting four consecutive 2-0 victories against Barnegat, Donovan Catholic, St. John Vianney and Wall.

The 2015 conference season ended in disappointment for Southern last spring, as a loss to Christian Brothers Academy in the SCT Final prevented a seventh straight title for the 35-6 Rams. The Colts, ranked No. 8 in the state with a record of 22-5, are Southern’s toughest Shore Conference opponents.

“They finally got us last year in the SCT, which should be attributed to them,” Maxwell says. “They’ve had great teams over the years and we’ve always been able to hold them off and win every Shore Conference tournament prior to that.”

Southern won both meetings with CBA this season--first on April 1 by a score of 2-0 (25-22, 25-13), and second on April 18, 2-1 (19-25, 25-19, 25-11).

“We look forward to that matchup because we know they’re going to give us a challenge,” says Maxwell. “CBA has always been a rival for us, and they bring out our best because we have to be ready to play [against them].”

The Rams opened up the final stretch of their season as the top seed in the first round of the NJSIAA South Tournament with a 2-0 (25-8, 25-5) win over Camden Academy Charter on May 24. Davis had 13 assists in the effort, and senior defensive specialist/libero Josh Iovine notched 13 service points.

Southern’s second round matchup with eighth-seeded Collingswood takes place on May 26.

The Rams need four more wins--three to win the South tournament bracket, and one in round one of the NJSIAA State Championship--to advance to the state finals match for the eighth straight time. Last season, Southern lost to Bridgewater-Raritan in a 2-0 (25-22, 25-12) match for the championship.

Until then, the team’s focus, Maxwell says, will remain on the fundamentals.

“We work on the fundamentals on a daily basis, and we practice hard, and we play good competition. All those things, and making sure that the team is bonding, have always been able to make us our best at the end of the season,” he says. “We’re going to work hard and challenge ourselves, and we expect, at the end of the day, to be playing for another state title in the beginning of June.”

Story by Ella Brockway