MIAA Volleyball: Holyoke opens state tourney with 3-0 sweep over Bellingham

  • Holyoke players celebrate a point against Granby earlier this season. The Purple Knights marched on in the MIAA Division 2 tournament thanks to a 3-0 sweep of Bellingham on Thursday. STAFF FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 6/2/2022 8:39:37 PM

HOLYOKE — Maybe it was nerves. Maybe it was being so close to a state tournament win that their exuberance was getting the better of them. Whatever the reason, Holyoke’s boys volleyball team was struggling to put away the third and final set against Bellingham in its first MIAA Division 2 tournament matchup.

Sitting at match point, and with two set wins under their belt, the Purple Knights led 24-16. They gave up one point — no big deal — and then another one. When they gave up the third point on an error where a set fell into the Knights’ court because nobody went to hit it, Holyoke head coach Paula Conway finally called a timeout to settle everyone down.

“I don’t think I can repeat (that) – no, I’m just kidding,” she joked when asked about what she told her team during that crucial timeout. “We needed to get back. I’ve been here and done these things before, and I just wanted to close it out. I told them you need to close it out.”

It worked — Holyoke closed out the set on the next chance, with Jairam Rodriguez landing the final point to punch the Purple Knights’ ticket to the Round of 16. No. 15 Holyoke bested No. 18 Bellingham in three straight sets (25-14, 25-15, 25-19) in what is likely its final home match of the season.

“It was nerve-wracking at the beginning but then later on it just got very exciting and fun,” Holyoke sophomore Adrian C. Feliciano said of the match.

Holyoke’s regular season record earned it a bye in the first round of the tournament. The win against Bellingham in the Round of 32 sends the Knights to the Round of 16, where they’ll play either No. 2 Greater New Bedford or No. 31 King Phillip. Those teams meet on Saturday.

Though the Purple Knights may have been feeling nervous on the big stage, they didn’t show it. In all three of their sets, Holyoke came out strong in the beginning. That was particularly apparent in the second and third sets; the Purple Knights went on 4-0 runs to open both frames.

“Sometimes we’ll win a set and then we kind of get a little lax and come out not too strong and I keep telling them, ‘This is it, this is your match,’” Conway said. “Today, every set was important.”

The Purple Knights made a statement in the opening frame. Though they struggled a bit out of the gates, they eventually went on a 9-2 run to jump out to a 12-5 lead and force a Bellingham timeout. Timely blocks from Feliciano and consistent play from everyone on the Purple Knights allowed the home team to hold on to that significant lead — Bellingham never got closer than five points to Holyoke in that set.

It was much the same story in the second set. As usual, Rodriguez set the ton on the attack for the Purple Knights, leading the way with several timely kills.

“I definitely was (in a rhythm),” Rodriguez said. “We haven’t played since last Monday, and it felt kind of weird to play again. But I’ve been practicing for this match all this week and last week, too.”

The third set was when things started to get a little iffy for Holyoke. With its back against the wall, Bellingham recovered from Holyoke’s 4-0 start and came back to take its first lead since the first set, going on a 9-2 run to make the game 9-6 in favor of the visitors, forcing a Holyoke timeout.

The two teams battled back and forth during the middle of the set. The Purple Knights finally turned the tide of the match with a 5-0 run to take a 16-13 lead, an advantage they kept for the remainder of the set.

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