ALBANY — In pursuit of an undefeated season and state title, Sachem North fell one set shy on Saturday afternoon.
AJ Fitzgerald had 23 kills and Mark Williams added another 15 kills, but Sachem North was defeated by McQuaid Jesuit (Rochester) in the Division I boys volleyball state championship, 16-25, 25-21, 26-24, 16-25, 15-12, at the Albany Capital Center.
“I’ve been on this team for a very long time,” said Fitzgerald. “And I knew it was gonna be a battle, but I just thought the ending was gonna be different.”
Trailing 2-1 following the third set, the Flaming Arrows rallied for a 25-16 victory to force a winner-take-all fifth game. McQuaid led 8-7 as the teams switched sides then widened the gap to 12-9. Williams brought Sachem North to within 12-10 with a kill, but back-to-back points put McQuaid ahead by four, setting up the championship-clinching point.
Sachem North coach Matt Rivera praised his players for their resiliency after dropping two sets for only the second time this season.
“I’m proud of them," Rivera said. “To get to this level and to compete as long as they did, and to lose 15-12 in the fifth set showed just how resilient they were and how they kept battling.”
The defeat marked the second consecutive season that Sachem North’s quest for an undefeated campaign ended in the state title match. Sachem North (18-1) returned to the final after defeating McQuaid, 25-20, 34-32, and Shenendehowa, 25-11, 25-17, in pool play.
“We put in everything,” Williams said. “Every touch, every single practice, we put in everything.”
Sachem North won the first set over McQuaid after winning both games during the pool play matchup, but Williams noted the adjustments McQuaid made that enabled the Knights to slow down Sachem’s offense just enough in the end.
“When AJ and I started going on runs, they started triple and double-blocking us,” Williams said. “It was hard to score but we kept going and I thought both teams played very hard."
Bigger than the undefeated theme for Sachem North this season was the presence of assistant coach Matt “Dezy” DiStefano, who was diagnosed with kidney cancer in February and began the Dezy Strong Foundation in August to raise awareness. A number of players referred to DiStefano as an inspiration throughout the season.
"It’s simply been amazing,” DiStefano said. “When you have a group of young men that come to battle for you every day. It truly means a lot to me…Their efforts were amazing…But what they’ve done for me emotionally, I found my strength through these guys.”
"I’m very thankful for coach Rivera and coach DiStefano,” Fitzgerald said. “What they’ve done for me and the program, I can’t return the favor.”