It was only the second day of tryouts for the Cherry Hill East boys volleyball team when the teams returning setter in senior Justin Szeto tore his ACL, thus forcing him to sit out for the duration of his senior season.
Having graduated then-senior outside-hitter Owen O’Connell last year, the Cougars would now go into the 2021-’22 season without potentially their two best players from the season prior, as O’Connell led the team with 150 kills and Szeto racked up 337 assists last year.
However, Cherry Hill East has rebounded quite nicely despite the preseason injury to the senior that was expected to direct traffic on the floor this season, with the teams other four starting returners and other players picking up the slack to lead the Cougars to a 9-3 start thus far this season.
“I feel like we’re a little bit more well balanced now,” coach McVeigh said. “I’m pretty pleased overall with what we’ve been able to do with a little more of a balanced attack.”
Following the injury to Szeto, fellow senior Chi Chan, who saw a fair amount of time on the floor last season, was now thrust into an elevated role as the team’s main setter. Leading up to the start of the season and even bleeding into the first few games, Chan was tasked with getting more familiar and building a stronger relationship on the court with the team’s various hitters, learning where they liked to be set up in games.
“There was a lot of adjusting early on to get our guys comfortable with one another,” McVeigh said. “It’s just different having a different setter, on paper we had five guys returning but after losing [Szeto] it becomes four and it gets shaky, but Chan has done a great job recovering what Szeto gave us last year.”
In a 6-2 offense last year, the job of setting would’ve been split up between Szeto and Chan so they could focus on setting up specific people in specific situations. Although tough at first, he feels he’s continued to grow at the position as the seasons progressed.
“Usually, if we were both healthy, we’d be running a 6-2 so the job could be split between us and be easier to have our own chemistry with different people that are subbed in throughout the game, and that’s what I expected coming into the season,” Chan said. “Our team’s chemistry has only gotten better as the seasons gone on, we know what the others want and how they like to hit it.”
The team’s top outside-hitter thus far this season has been Ansh Mehta, who moved there from playing middle last season. Mehta collected 101 kills last season as a middle, with O’Connell being the team’s main outside-hitter, as is poised to potentially surpass that mark again this season.
The switch, McVeigh said, was one that felt like a natural move for Mehta to make for his senior year.
“With [O’Connell’s] departure last year, he knew he had to step up into a larger role this season,” McVeigh said. “He was probably one of the more athletic middles in South Jersey last season and I knew he wanted to move to outside last year so we got him some matches as an outside-hitter last year to get his feet wet, which he’s now taken full advantage of.”
The switch to outside-hitter also meant Mehta would be subbed out of games less, something he was looking forward to so he could hopefully have an elevated opportunity to help the Cougars close out games.
The added playing time, for both Mehta and Chan, has led to another strong season for Cherry Hill East that figures to be getting stronger as a team the more they play together. For Mehta, he believes the extra time for the team to get used to playing together will serve them well when playoffs come.
“We’ve played well as a team, there’s still room for improvement, but I think we’re getting better every day,” Mehta said. “We’re a completely different team from when we first got started this season.”