Protecting the zero.
15-0. It’s uncharted territory for Plainfield East.
Plainfield East ran its unbeaten streak to start the season to 15 on Thursday, defeating visiting Southwest Prairie Conference foe Oswego 25-18, 25-23. But the further away from that “0” that the Bengals get, the harder it’s becoming to protect it.
“The guys were real quiet tonight,” third-year Plainfield East coach Alex Rodriguez said. “You could see it. And part of it, too … I didn't want to have that conversation, but we might have to. It's protecting that zero. It's just protecting it, holding onto it.
“But that's not what got us here,” he added. “We’re not protecting anything. We’re going out and playing, keeping it light, keeping it hyped. But every match, the further we get away from zero, the tighter we get. It's not a good thing.”
Plainfield East (4-0 in the conference) controlled most of the first set Thursday, building a 17-12 lead on consecutive kills by 6-foot-4 outside hitter Matthew Binkus and back-to-back Oswego hitting errors. The set ended on a crosscourt kill by the Bengals’ 6-2 senior Erikas Gerulskis.
But the Panthers countered in Game 2 by racing to a 10-6 lead, and even the most casual observer could see the tension building on the Plainfield East side of the court.
“(The key to our success is) confidence and energy,” Plainfield East’s 6-4 outside hitter Trey Cowan said. “When we’re all quiet or down, we don't play well. But when we’re all hyped and having a good time, having fun, we play amazing. We click on every level.
“It’s (the unbeaten streak) always in the back of our minds,” he added. “But it’s not like it’s killing us. It’s just always in the back of our minds. We just want to win as many games as we can.”
Plainfield East set school record for wins in 2017 by going 22-10 before it was derailed in the regional semifinals by Neuqua Valley 22-25, 25-22, 25-14. Chemistry is one of the reasons that the Bengals should easily eclipse that mark in 2018.
“Four of five of us play on the same club team (Plainfield-based Club 1), and then everybody else we’re all friends with,” Cowan said. “Everybody likes each other. I think that's why we have such good chemistry.
“I’ve been on teams in the past where one or two guys were disliked,” he added. “It's like a cancer that spreads throughout the whole team.”
Plainfield East’s chemistry and confidence should be tested next weekend when the Bengals compete in the Brother Rice Smack Attack featuring such volleyball heavyweights as Lincoln-Way East, Lincoln-Way West, Glenbard West, Marist and the host Crusaders.
“That will be a nice tournament because a lot of those teams we haven't seen and they haven't seen us,” Rodriguez said. “It's almost fresh. It's almost like they don't really know the record and we don't necessarily have that target on our back.
“Our conference teams, they all know we’re the team to beat and they want to be that team to beat us,” he added. “You have to give it to Oswego. They played really well tonight. They got a lot of stuff up ... off blocks, off tips. (Oswego coach Zach Splitt) does a nice job with that team.”
Yet despite battling Plainfield East throughout the first 40 points of the second set, the Panthers eventually succumbed under the weight of their own mistakes. Three consecutive hitting errors allowed Plainfield East to overcome a 20-18 deficit.
“Unforced errors have been our Achilles' heel for the majority of the season,” said Splitt, a former standout player at Naperville North and Quincy University. “We’re just now getting to the point late in sets where we’re more comfortable in certain situations.
“But there's still a handful of moments where we play in the moment, and it ruins us,” he added. “We forget how to execute. We’re not playing physically any more. That's what happened tonight. Down the stretch we forgot how to play the game.”
Youth contributes to some of the issues Oswego is experiencing. The Panthers start two sophomores and a host of other players with little varsity experience.
However, Splitt refuses to use inexperience as an excuse.
“They’re learning curve needs to be quick so we can get comfortable in certain situations and allow us to execute,” he said. “Right now, we focus a lot on the outcome of what we’re doing, but not how we get to that outcome. That's going to come.”
Sophomore Luke Sackmann and 6-5 opposite hitter Konlin Vicik each had 5 kills to lead Oswego (6-11, 0-3). Junior Austin Swanson and 6-3 middle hitter Allan Coyt (2 blocks) added 3 kills apiece, and sophomore setter Anthony Maltese had 15 assists.
Cowan had 8 kills and 2 blocks to pace Plainfield East, which also got 6 kills and 2 blocks from Binkus, 5 kills from Nathan Mason and 4 kills each from Gerulskis and 6-4 middle hitter Remington Norman. David Herrera had 22 assists and libero Nicholas Cozza added 8 digs.
“In the long run, we’re going to be fine,” Rodriguez said. “But it's working out through this part of it, figuring out (how to deal being unbeaten). I’m not sure how many guys on the team have actually been 15-0, and I'm figuring it out right along with them.”