WELLESLEY, Mass. -– Robbie Buderi was pretty sure he’d just sprained his left ankle – and badly. Actually, no, he was quite positive.
“I’m pretty sure it’s bad, but I can’t even feel it right now,” the senior captain laughed just moments after his Cambridge squad captured its first MIAA state volleyball title in a decade. “I’ll probably feel it later.
“These people [from the crowd] were just attacking me. I couldn’t do anything. But I’ll take it, I’ll take it. It’s worth it. It’s all worth it.”
Just a few minutes earlier, before a tightly-packed capacity crowd at Babson College’s Steake Gymnasium, the 6-foot-5 Buderi put the finishing touches on the Falcons’ victory, rising up along the left side of the net and blocking a would-be kill attempt to win the fifth set, 15-12, and nullify a vicious threat from the Hawks, who rallied after losing the first two games and coming close to elimination in the end of the third.
“I was ready for it – I had my hands up,” Buderi said. “I was so happy. I came out, and I was really in a daze. I had so much adrenaline in me.”
For the Falcons (22-3), this is the program’s first state championship since 2003, and first under head coach Kelley Leary.
“I’m ecstatic,” she said. “I’m so happy for these boys. They busted their butt all along, through a lot of trials and tribulations. We’ve had a lot of outside stuff going on with the team as well, so I’m just so proud of them.”
Said junior Jalen Penrose, “I’ve been dreaming about this since my freshman year, and it’s finally come true. I guess I’m ecstatic.”
After dropping the first two sets, the Scarlet Hawks (22-1) roared back to take games three and four by scores of 25-23 and 27-25, respectively. Facing a number of powerful Falcon hitters in Buderi, senior Kevin Lovaincy and junior Jalen Penrose, the Hawks countered with some soft touches around the net to keep them honest, often tapping balls over for soft drops and then turning around to deliver spikes to the opposite sidelines.
In the 15-point fifth set, however, the Falcons went back to basics and relied on Penrose and Lovaincy to grind out some crucial points. Pemrose notched four kills in the set, while Lovaincy came up with two blocks. The Hawks took a 12-11 lead in the game, before the Falcons ran off the final four points to win, capped with two kills and the block by Buderi, who is headed to McGill University next year as a soccer goalkeeper.
“I thought we had a chance, [but] they [Cambridge] were the better team in this gym,” Milford coach Linda Zacchilli said. “We didn’t go away. We dug in our heels, and I think that my kids fought, we left it all out there on the court. We had our chances. To come back from two down, and play the way we played, and we were there in the fifth game.
“We make a couple different decisions on the court, and it could have gone the other way. I would have thought of it as kind of a steal, because I do think that they were the better team today. I think this was their best match.”
Penrose at his peak: Per team policy, the Falcons do not have stats available until the coaching staff has gone over game film to verify the accuracy. Leaving margin for error, our own unofficial kill count tonight for Pemrose was 29.
Whatever the case may be, Pemrose made himself heard all night without barely speaking. It was a familiar routine throughout the night, the 6-foot-5 junior slamming a powerful spike into no man’s land with a pop that could be heard from the running track circling above the gym, then motioning to his home crowd for some noise.
The duties of taking stats off of film usually falls unto Penrose’s mother. After watching probably hundreds of her son’s games, even she would probably be impressed.
“It’s just something that came naturally to me, but I vow to do better,” the younger Penrose said.
Asked if this was the best he’d seen Penrose play all year, Lovaincy couldn’t agree more.
“Jalen’s a humble kid, but he played well,” Lovaincy said. “Robbie was on fire. Jalen was on fire. We had some great setting, the back row was on fire. Everyone played well today.”
As for Penrose’s vicious overhand smashes, Lovaincy added, “It comes with a lot of power, you know. I feel bad for the blockers trying to block those. It’s not fun.”
Penrose lists a number of Division 1 college programs for his future volleyball plans, among them Penn State, Pittsburgh, Brigham Young, Ohio, Pacific and IPFW.
Intense atmosphere: Clad in all shades of red, the Milford faithful began filing in well over an hour before the 7 p.m. start, and the gym filled up pretty quickly. Coupled with Cambridge’s supporters, it was a tension you could cut with a knife, and one you’d expect in a state final for basketball, not volleyball.
Repeated warnings over the loudspeakers to stay off the court at the game’s conclusion were about as effective as a tip jar at a toll booth. Cambridge’s fans stormed the court as soon as Buderi made the game-winning block. At the other end, the Milford fans rushed the court as well – though obviously in a more subdued manner – and stood behind the players as they received their second-place medals.
The Milford faithful exploded with every point scored, and in the end won over the approval of many Cambridge players.
“Milford knows how to bring out the fans, I’ll give them that,” Buderi said.
Said Penrose, “Not a lot of people know what real volleyball looks like, and this is the level that it looks like. People think of volleyball as elementary school, but once you get this high it’s not like that. It’s a game, just like basketball.”