Goliath vs Goliath: No. 1 Southern Answers All Questions About Their Status
Photo by Jim Rosa
Rosa’s Sport Shots
Toms River, NJ- Coming into the 2023 season, Southern Regional was considered the unanimous number one team at the Shore. With a 17-1 record, the Rams only loss has come off the hands of Immaculate Heart Academy, who are ranked 15th in the nation. The stage has been set during the first month of the season, and the presence of No. 2 Donovan Catholic, loaded with experienced Seniors, started to creep up front and center. The Griffins entered this match against the Rams with an 18-1 record with their only loss being to Monroe, another state powerhouse in New Jersey girls volleyball. This has generated some question marks regarding “who is the clear number one team?” Two highly respectable programs led by great coaches in Eric Maxwell and Glenn Jansen came to a clash during this afternoon’s match up of Goliath vs. Goliath.
Off of Exit 82 on the Garden State Parkway sits the town of Toms River, home to four Shore Conference high schools, one being the parochial Donovan Catholic. DC has stormed the New Jersey athletic scene in recent years and the Girls Volleyball program has become one of NJ’s top contenders in Non-Public A as they currently hold the number one seed with the most power points in that group. As I pulled into the parking lot at Donovan Catholic, it was clear…today was different. With the number one team matching up against the number two team, the gym was jam packed with fans from both sides. The crowd was chippy and energetic.
The first match opened up with a serve from one of the Shore’s best in Donovan’s Macayla Lindner, the team leader in aces, with the “boom” chants from the Donovan crowd. The first point did not disappoint, as a dig from Southern’s Emily Brunatti sent the ball swirling back over the net for a setup to Shantel Starling, the Shore’s leader in kills. Southern immediately bounced back with a dominating block which led to a setup for Southern’s leader Jordyn Hamlin to have perfect ball placement while also obliterating it into the opponent’s court. “I was really pleased with how we started tonight” said Coach Eric Maxwell, “great energy and we played with confidence right out of the gate.”
Immediately following the Hamlin kill shot, it was her opportunity to serve, in which she delivered an immediate low flying ace that looked like a sinker from a Major League pitcher. The first set stayed fairly even early on with both teams looking to punish the ball. Having covered both teams this season, these kill shots driven from power are generally the difference makers. But, this game was a bit different as both sides have strong Middle Blockers and incredible defenders that keep the ball alive. Pure power was not going to cut it for either team.
After a referee miscommunication that resulted in a stoppage and a heated discussion, the Rams took that energy and gelled as a team unit with a new deliberate attack predicated on ball placement and timeliness. This was only really possible due to the ball control of Setter Molly Regulski. “Molly just did a fantastic job of distributing as she always does” Coach Maxwell stated. This controlled pivot, combined with premier serving from the likes of No. 7 Lili Davis, put the Rams out to a lead that seemed to be too much for the Griffins to keep up with in the first set.
From 8-6 to 13-6 in a flash, Southern’s dominance started to rear its head. The Rams team depth is unrivaled at the Shore. As Southern got ahead, “Jess was hammering away from the outside,” said Maxwell, referring to Junior Outside Hitter and Middle Blocker Jess Smart.
Up 20-10, Donovan still showed some life off the hand of Outside Hitter Shantel Starling who has the ability to drive the ball straight into the ground with no recourse for the defenders. The problem in the first set for Donovan was that whenever they got a little momentum, a serve went awry stifling their chance to bounce back. Southern’s depth was extremely apparent in the final points of set one as Emily Brunatti served wonderfully and Southern brought back the devastating kill shot from Jess Smart and Bryn Hagen as featured in the highlight video. Set one ended 25-15 in favor of the Rams.
The second set was definitely not a cake walk for Southern as Donovan Catholic is very well coached and the necessary adjustments were put in place. “We knew they would bounce back in game two. They are a tough team, so they weren’t going to go away without challenging us. In fact they probably outplayed us for most of that set.” noted Maxwell.
DC set the tone early in the second set that they were in fact “not going away.” Starling seemed to be the Griffins' difference maker today leading the entire match with 12 kills. This set started out fairly even, that was until Macayla Lindner showed up with a momentum shifting run from the serving position with the help from some key blocks by Carly Bowbliss and a number of setups from Elizabeth Kavanaugh.
At one point Donovan was in such control that they were up 22-15 over the Rams and a third set seemed imminent. That was until the team leader in Jordyn Hamlin got red hot with some big kills, but more importantly her service receive and defense made it impossible for the Griffins to put the Rams away. Chipping away, the score was eventually 24-20 in favor of DC and one point away from sending it to set three. With multiple kill attempts by Starling, the defense of Southern finally got the ball to Regulski who set it up for a final Jess Smart game winning kill at a clip of 27-25.
“She is our leader”, referring to Hamlin, “But she will be the first to tell you that it is always a team win. We need each other. Nice win tonight, but we will get right back to work tomorrow.” said Coach Maxwell.
Overall, this match fell to a lopsided 2-0 in favor of Southern Regional over Donovan Catholic, but that does not mean that if they face each other again in the Shore Conference Tournament that the game is a lock for Southern. As Donovan came together as a team, they definitely have the ability to compete with the likes of Southern. Lindner, normally a kill factor for the Griffins ended with an uncharacteristic “1” in the kill column, and once you get her going she can often rise to being untouchable. Today though, the Rams managed their ball placement incredibly well and often did not let Lindner get into her normal groove. Finesse was the outlier that took away all the question marks surrounding the matchup of Donovan Catholic vs Southern Regional.
“We came into this game fired up, super respectful for the other team but we were ready.” said Jess Smart in a post game interview. When asked about the Shore Conference Tournament potential rematch, Smart said, “it’s going to be a very loud environment. It’s going to be a great game, we are going into it respecting our opponent and looking for a good game.”
No. 1 Southern Rams are 18-1, and looking forward to tournament play with a State Title run on their horizon.