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Sachem North boys volleyball seeking redemption by winning state title

A.J. Fitzgerald of Sachem North serves during the

A.J. Fitzgerald of Sachem North serves during the Suffolk Division I boys volleyball final at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood on Nov. 7, 2018. Credit: Daniel De Mato

Sachem North watched an undefeated season slip away in the state boys volleyball final last November.

Now the Flaming Arrows are focused on returning to the state final and winning the title.

“Our expectation is definitely to win states,” outside hitter A.J. Fitzgerald said. “We should definitely go back. We’re calling this the redemption year.”

Sachem North coach Matt Rivera said his message to the Flaming Arrows, who finished 18-1 season, is clear. The lone loss was to Fairport in the Division I state final in Albany.

“Essentially, we came up short so we’re talking about redemption and an opportunity to play for a state title again,” Rivera said. “Not everybody gets to do that, but we have the right talent. We just have to create the right culture and finish what we left on the table last year.”

With players such as Fitzgerald and setter C.J. Johnson, Sachem North’s talent is undeniable. But the program’s deeply-rooted culture is what sets the tone.

“More than anything, culture has been the essence of our program,” Rivera said. “We have a really high level of expectation here, and that’s cultivated by players. I always tell them that culture will set the ceiling for us, and that begins with our work in the gym. Those teams that won championships for us in the past, the difference was culture. We’re going to continue to put a lot of emphasis on that.”

In fact, it’s a culture that has produced three Long Island championships and one state championship under Rivera.

Fitzgerald, who had 253 kills, 136 digs and 30 aces last season, highlighted the key role of communication and how it factors into Sachem North’s success.

“Communication is a very big part of our program,” Fitzgerald said. “Every set on the court matters to us, every touch. If we don’t communicate, we’re not at our best.”

Johnson, who had 447 assists, 101 digs and 14 aces last season, said selfless energy is also a key.

“Energy, lots of energy,” Johnson said. “Knowing that the team is first and we don’t want to be selfish. We want to make sure that the guys around us are getting better. Once that happens, you know that individually you’ll get better as well.”

Rivera believes Fitzgerald and Johnson will set the tone and ultimately determine how far the team goes this season.

“They’ll be the difference makers for us,” Rivera said. “It’s gonna be their leadership that determines our success. That’s a lot of pressure, but those are two guys that I know are up to the task.  They eat, breathe and sleep Sachem volleyball.”

Rivera also has high expectations for his other starting outside hitter, Mark Williams, as well as 6-8 middle hitter Chris Leonard. Rivera believes his libero, John Curaro, is “the best libero in the county, if not the entire Island."

Johnson said last season’s ending was a learning opportunity for the team.

"We want to make sure that we take that loss, understand that we never want to feel that way again and do better every single day in practice to avoid that at the end of the year," he said.

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