For so many on the Bellmore JFK boys volleyball team, this season was a last shot at playing and very much a Hail Mary.
After the Cougars won the Class B championship last year, they were minus three all-county players - two of them setters - and facing a slew of improved teams gunning for the crown. There was Floral Park, so breathtakingly unbeatable in the regular season; Jericho, improved and dangerous, and West Hempstead.
Bellmore was made up of seniors getting their first shots at varsity and a steep learning curve at the setting position - one of the most important on the court. Coaches Allen Ma and Dennis Ringel were undaunted, as were Jesse Forman and Ryan Pastuch, those uninitiated setters.
So now comes the semifinals the week before last and No. 2 Bellmore holds off No. 3 Jericho in five games, including a 34-32 Game 4 where Bellmore fought off five match points. Then West Hempstead knocks out Floral Park, the favorite.
On Thursday, Bellmore won the championship in a four games over West Hempstead. Pastuch and Forman recorded 22 assists each.
"The players really stepped up, came to extra work outs, played beach volleyball and played in different leagues," Ma said. "We had big shoes to fill, especially with the two setters we lost, but Forman and Pastuch have been incredible."
It was outside hitter Brandon Mills who provided a gravitational center. Mills had 16 kills against West Hempstead and 21 kills in the Jericho game - a match Ma called "the most pressure I've ever seen a team go through."
Mills is the emotional leader," Ma continued. "We wouldn't have gone where we went without him. He's the heart of the team."
He's also the Class B MVP.
"We wanted to get him that trophy," Ma said. "That's been our vision since he was in ninth grade. He's such a coachable kid and it's an honor [to coach him]."