HAMMONTON — If ever there was a year for the Oakcrest girls volleyball team to make a run through the Cape-Atlantic League and win the Falcons’ first state playoff game in program history, this is that year. The Falcons feature a roster loaded with 11 seniors and one sophomore, and have the experience and determination to make some noise in next week’s postseason. They got a tune-up on Friday night with a two-game sweep of host Hammonton, a team Oakcrest beat 2-0 in the season opener.

Oakcrest got off to a strong start, winning the first game 25-14, but hit a bit of a lull in Game 2 before turning it on late to win, 25-21. But even as Hammonton came back from a 9-7 deficit to take a 15-13 lead, the Falcons never panicked, relying on their experience to swing the momentum back their way.

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“We have 11 seniors and a sophomore on varsity, so they’ve been playing for awhile. All the seniors have been playing volleyball for four years, they came up through freshman then JV and now they’re all on varsity together,” said Oakcrest coach Josh Miller. “We had six days off over the Easter break and just one practice before today, so there’s going to be a little bit of rust. And (before the season started) these girls really hadn’t played volleyball for a year and a half. Some of the girls were able to play in the offseason last year, so that helped. For the most part we’re just taking it day by day because you never know when a player is going to be out with what has been going on this year.”

The win was a big rebound from Oakcrest’s only loss, which came 10 days ago against Absegami, the leader in the Cape-Atlantic League East division. Coming in against Hammonton, Oakcrest senior outside hitter Maddie Connelly said the Falcons were prepared for Blue Devils standouts such as Tiffany and Annabella Paretti, Sarah Viruet and Luca Berenato. Tiffany Paretti finished with six assists and four service points, but for the most part the Falcons held that group in check.

“Coming in, we had already played them one time and we watched the tape from the last game,” Connelly said. “We knew they had two really good servers, No. 12 (Tiffany Paretti) and No. 16 (Berenato), so we were just really prepared as a team. We knew the girls to watch out for, we knew they would try to tip (the ball over the net), we knew their plays.”

“The cheers from our girls on the bench really helped us out in that second game,” added senior setter Emma McErlain. “We knew we had to pep each other up and give each other energy.”

Hammonton (1-5, 1-5 CAL West) jumped out to a 4-2 lead in the second game and it took a little time for the Falcons to find their groove again.

Said Connelly, “We’re all so close because we’re all seniors with just one sophomore on the team, so we’re all kind of like best friends. We know when we’re in our own heads and that we need to pick each other up and play as a team.”

“We’re a smaller team, so we have to win matches by serving well, passing well, keeping the ball in play and minimizing our errors,” Miller said.

The Falcons (9-1, 6-0 CAL West) did just that, getting back into the game and eventually taking a 9-7 lead thanks to a couple of service aces from McErlain. The lead swung back Hammonton’s way as the Blue Devils took a 15-13 advantage but Oakcrest fought back again with Tianna Ortiz at the service line, regaining the lead, 17-15. The Blue Devils got within 18-17 but couldn’t find the tying point.

Oakcrest has a tough playoff tune-up on Monday against Cedar Creek (7-2, 5-1 CAL West) before the South Jersey Group 2 tournament begins. The No. 1 Falcons play on Thursday and await the winner of No. 8 Barnegat vs. No. 9 Pleasantville. Those teams square off Tuesday at Barnegat. The Bracket features two other CAL teams in No. 3 Cedar Creek and No. 11 Lower Cape May.

“We were so ready,” Connelly said. “We all love this sport so much and we just wanted to get back to it. We really want to win a playoff game because Oakcrest volleyball has never won a playoff game in the history of the school, so we really want to bring that home.”

“This season has been great. I love our group of players and I think we play really well together. I think what really gels us together is our connection because we’re all seniors, and Madison Pell, the sophomore, she fits in really well with us. We were so excited to play this season, we were practicing by ourselves in our garages and backyards,” McErlain added. “Heading into playoffs, we’re going in confident, but not cocky. I think we all believe in each other, and that’s the biggest thing. We believe in our skills and our talents.”

Said coach Miller, “We’ve just been talking about trying to get a little better each day, trying to improve from the beginning of the year and not plateau. We kind of did that a little bit toward the end of (the 2019 season), so if we can keep getting a little better each time we come out hopefully we can do well in the playoffs.”

What’s next: Oakcrest travels to Cedar Creek on Monday at 4 p.m. No. 11 Hammonton travels to No. 6 Clearview on Monday in the opening round of the South Jersey Group 3 playoffs, time TBA.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays

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