PROVIDENCE – Way back on April 23, North Smithfield High trekked to the Providence Career & Technical Academy field house to take on league-leading Central in a Division II crossover bout.
The Northmen held their own against the superb Knights, but bused home on the down side of a 3-1 verdict.
Still, the way North Smithfield battled in that 25-18, 25-14, 22-25, 25-14 defeat wasn't lost on Central head coach Donn Chu, who had warned his players prior to Monday night's R.I. Division II Tournament semifinal that their opponent would be dangerous, especially given its size advantage.
“I knew they were very tall, and I felt we'd have our work cut out for us because of their height,” Chu explained. “That's why I'm a little surprised with the final result.”
The high-flying Knights, seeded first in II-Central, clicked on all cylinders in this semifinal – led by senior tri-captain/outside hitter Jonathan Rodriguez, who registered 13 kills, seven aces and five digs and fellow tri-captain Naroth Chao, who had a team-high 14 kills and three digs – to comfortably oust the Northmen, 3-0, at this same spacious gymnasium.
Classmate and setter Sangress Xiong contributed 27 assists and a dig and Alex Sivilai, the last senior tri-captain, mustered five digs, three spikes, three blocks and an assist as Central improved to 19-1 overall.
For North Smithfield, the North's No. 2 seed behind champion Tolman, senior tri-captain Neil Skalubinski issued 11 kills and three blocks, while fellow captain Walker Strick chipped in 18 assists, but those were virtually the lone highlights in the 25-19, 25-16, 25-25 loss.
Another senior, Cody L'Heureux, collected only three kills, far off his seasonal average.
With the triumph, Central qualified to take on the victor of the other semifinal between Tolman and West Warwick for the championship here at 5:30 p.m., Thursday.
“(Rodriguez) is one of the most talented kids in the league; his vertical jump is amazing,” Northmen coach Jeff Crins said after his club's season closed at 15-5. “Our goal was to shut down his serve, but he scored a ton of points behind the service line. He picked his spots and hit the ball really hard.
“In our last match with them, he probably scored five or six points on each of his serves, and we wanted to hold him just two or three (per service chance) in this one,” he added. “He had a couple of five- or six-point (rallies) on his serve (Monday night), and that didn't help.
“Our guys just didn't play well. You can't win a match with only 20 total kills; you need 50 or 60, especially against a team like Central, but we just didn't have it. The chemistry wasn't there. We were a little flat, and the energy wasn't there.”
In the initial game, however, the Northmen held tight to its plan, and actually took advantage of Skalubinski's serve to score four straight points and knot it for the eighth time at 13-all.
After senior Matt Walkow, who managed only two kills and a pair of caroms throughout, drilled a spike attempt just long, Rodriguez took the service and immediately rattled off five straight points to give Central a 19-13 lead. He did so via Chao's kill and a near ace, but his wallop into the net sliced the gap to 19-14.
N.S. senior Cody L'Heureux then made an unforced miscue, and sophomore Xue Yang served up a point on a long Walkow spike to make it 21-14. Senior tri-captain Logan Smith's serve was successful after a Knights' unforced error, though a Sivilai kill gave Central a 24-19 cushion before Strick's serve soared just long.
The Northmen had tied the middle game up at 1-1 after a Knights' double-hit, and junior Peter Keenan's spike cut the deficit to 3-2, but Central slowly pulled away. Rodriguez drilled a kill to extend the lead to 7-4, then with his service quickly earned three more points.
With senior Ulises Rivera behind the service stripe, the hosts garnered three more points for the 15-7 advantage. Later, a Rodriguez ace made it 21-14, though his next rifle jump serve hit the net.
Central iced it after a pair of Northmen unforced errors and Chao's spike off a block, the last snaring the second at 25-16.
A Skalubinski kill gave N.S. a 1-0 lead in the third and final game, and his hard block made it 2-1 before L'Heureux's kill knotted it for the third time at 3-3. On Skalubinski's serve, Rodriguez produced another sinking point, and – with the latter at the stripe – manufactured three straight points for the 7-3 advantage.
The Knights again slowly took control, especially after four service points from sophomore Vuthy Chan made it 12-5. The two combatants then went back and forth, with help from Keenan and Smith, before Sivilai's long spike try cut it to 17-13.
Chao's score raised the lead at 18-13, and three service points from Chan – the last on a powerful kill from Rodriguez – gave Central a 23-14 advantage. Senior Jonathan Canela served wide of the net, but the Knights' sealed it with two successive Sivilai kills; those earned him and his teammates the 25-15 win and the shutout.
“Central deserves a lot of credit,” Crins noted. “They have a lot of talented guys over there, and they get to balls the other teams don't or won't. They just took advantage of our slump here.”
Rodriguez played an instrumental role in the triumph, partly because of his vertical leap, perhaps 48 inches, but also because of his serve; he uses a lot of top spin on some occasions, causing the ball to sink, or a baseball-like knuckler, which baffled opposing defenses.
“I don't know what he can jump, but it's way up there; I haven't measured it, but I know it's much higher than mine,” Chu chuckled. “He just played phenomenal. He was under control, he hit with confidence and he played smart. He was very selective with his hitting. If there wasn't a perfect set, he used his head and made the safe hit; he'd take some power off it.
“I thought that was one of our primary keys.”