In the early part of the season, the Neuqua Valley boys volleyball team had the element of surprise working for it, but not any more.
The Wildcats (23-6) had their selfless all-around game in full swing Saturday as they defeated St. Francis 25-17, 25-21 in the finals to win the Benet Invitational.
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Neuqua won all five of its matches without losing a set for its second major tournament championship of the season. Earlier the Wildcats took the title at Glenbard East's Springfest.
"It was motivating at the beginning of the season when nobody thought we were any good," said Neuqua Valley outside hitter Cal Rafferty. "But to come out and do what we're doing this season is something special. I don't know if it's better now that it's not a surprise, but as long as we're winning it doesn't matter what people are thinking. If we're passing well and playing our game as a team, there's nothing we can't do."
"I couldn't have asked for anything better," said Neuqua coach Erich Mendoza. "We had a couple of games that were close and one or two where the opponents battled back. But we kept our focus. The guys know what they need to do to get the job done and they were able to finish."
While the Wildcats pride themselves in running a balanced offense as they did throughout the tournament, two players, Rafferty and 6-foot-8 middle hitter Griffin Shields stepped up with "monster" performances to help put St. Francis away.
In the finals Rafferty put down 15 kills, while Shields had 5 blocks in the second set against the Spartans.
Neuqua trailed 11-9 in that second set and went on a seven-point run that was highlighted by 3 Shields blocks and a pair of Rafferty kills.
"It's nice to have people step up like that," Mendoza said. "It creates more opportunities for everyone on the team."
Rafferty called the victory "as good as it gets."
Despite the loss, St. Francis coach Mike Lynch was happy with his team's performance.
"We were with Neuqua Valley through most of both sets," Lynch said. "But they played really well. We still have some work to do on our serve-receive and clean up our blocks."
Greg Churney led the Spartans (22-7) with 6 kills and Jeff Jendryk had 4 blocks.
In the third-place game Glenbard West defeated host Benet 26-24, 25-20.
Naperville Central defeated Providence Catholic in three sets to take fifth place, and Waubonsie Valley also took three sets to top Morton for seventh place.
Neuqua setter Alex Coyne was selected as the tournament's Most Valuable Player, and he was joined by teammate Jeremy Royko on the all-tournament team.
Also recognized on the all-tournament team were: Robert Smith and Jendryk of St. Francis, Jacob Stone and Andrew Roberts of Glenbard West, Sawyer Yeazel and Mike Jurkash of Benet, John Chiczewski of Naperville Central, Brendan Surane of Providence, Tyler House of Waubonsie Valley and Andrew Franco of Morton.