Braves ready to re-gain Olympic Conference crown

Three years after seeing its run of 15 straight conference champions end, Williamstown girls volleyball is dominating the competition in South Jersey.

McKenzie Melvin prepares to serve for Williamstown during last Monday’s match against Cherry Hill East. The Braves’ 2-1 victory over the Cougars last Monday kept them on track to win their first conference title since 2015.

As they walked into Cherry Hill East’s DiBart Gym last Monday, Williamstown seniors Lilyanna Martucci and Summer Wroniuk knew the significance of their game against Cherry Hill East.

Both of them know of how the Braves went into the DiBart Gym three years ago and suffered a tough, 2-1 loss, to Cherry Hill East. The loss was instrumental in the Cougars winning the Olympic Conference American Division that year, snapping Williamstown’s run of 15 consecutive conference titles in the process.

They also know how Williamstown hadn’t won a conference title in the two years that followed and how last Monday’s meeting with the Cougars was going to put the Braves in the driver’s seat to end their three-year drought.

“Like (head coach Chris Sheppard) says, in 2001 they started it up all the way through 2015,” Martucci said. “They lost right here back in 2016 and this year, we’re going to be the group that starts it back up again.”

Last Monday, the Braves took one step closer to re-gaining the Olympic Conference American Division crown when they grinded out a thrilling, 2-1 win. Williamstown edged out Cherry Hill East, 26-24, in the final set to close out the victory and a sweep of the season series against the Cougars.

Sheppard felt last Monday’s win showed how tough his team is in pressure situations. The match was the first time Williamstown had played a three set match all year.

“That was a good character win because we dropped that second set, we were in control of the third set and Cherry Hill East did a lot of good things to get back into it,” he said.

After three straight seasons where a combination of inexperience and injuries hurt Williamstown’s chances for a conference title and deep playoff run, the Braves are off to an outstanding start in 2019. Prior to last Monday, the Braves had won 12 straight games against South Jersey opponents and hadn’t dropped a set in any of those matches. The only two losses Williamstown had heading into the Cherry Hill East match were against Union Catholic and North Hunterdon, two schools ranked in the top five of NJ.com’s state rankings.  The Braves’ 17-2 start to the season was the best since 2015, a year where Williamstown won 31 games and advanced to the Group 4 state championship.

Williamstown senior Lilyanna Martucci tosses the ball up for a serve during last Monday’s match.
Summer Wroniuk serves for Williamstown in the first set.

“It’s a group that, themselves, is pretty focused on winning,” Sheppard said of the 2019 team. “I have a group right now that recognizes what’s out in front of them.”

Wroniuk believes this year’s team has grown in confidence with each win, especially when the Braves were able to rack up victories over ranked North Jersey foes such as St. John Vianney and Southern Regional in September.

“Our confidence is growing more and more as we play,” Wroniuk said. “We’d rather play (highly) competitive teams such as Cherry Hill East, who is a good opponent. It only makes us better.”

Even with all of the team’s achievements in the season’s first month, the Braves recognized a loss to Cherry Hill East last Monday could put their dreams of a conference title in jeopardy. Things looked even more tenuous for Williamstown when the Cougars won the second set last Monday, 27-25. It was the first time Williamstown had lost a set to a South Jersey opponent all season.

Williamstown head coach Chris Sheppard gives his team instructions in between sets during last Monday’s 2-1 win over Olympic Conference rival Cherry Hill East. The Braves’ win last Monday was their 13th consecutive victory over a South Jersey opponent.

After dropping the set, there wasn’t a look of fear or sadness in the eyes of the Braves. Instead, there was a look of determination.

“I just told my girls right before that third set, ‘We’re going to play together. I want to play with you girls as long as I can because I’m a senior and this is my last shot, best shot,’” Martucci said. “I just told those girls to leave it all out on the court and play the way we know how to play.”

“We just learned that by staying together, we improve more on and off the court,” Wroniuk added.

The togetherness Martucci and Wroniuk talked about is an intangible that could be the difference for Williamstown in the postseason. Wroniuk believes this year’s team is the tightest she’s been with in her four years with the program and Sheppard felt the team’s unity may have been the difference in last Monday’s win.

“To find a way to stick together and pull that out was big,” Sheppard said.