Prior to this season, the Eastport South Manor boys volleyball team had reached the New York State Championships three times since 2010, each time coming away empty handed. On Saturday, the Sharks turned their fortunes around, winning the school’s first ever volleyball state title—between both the boys and girls programs—with a 3-1 victory over Spencerport (Section V-Genesee Valley) at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood. It’s also the first ever state title for head coach Bruce Stiriz, who has coached at ESM the past 13 years and at Westhampton Beach 10 years before that.
After winning the Suffolk County Division II title over Hauppauge on November 9, ESM defeated Bellmore JFK for the Long Island Championship on November 12 for the right to play in the state tournament.
ESM needed to get past both Spencerport and Oswego (Section III-Central New York) in pool play earlier in the day on Saturday to reach the final match. After defeating Spencerport, 25-15, 25-22, in the first round, the Sharks defeated Oswego, 28-26, 25-21, to earn a bye into the finals. Spencerport eliminated Oswego in the final round of pool play to advance to the finals for a rematch with ESM.
“For this particular team, I felt the most confident that I ever had in any season,” Stiriz said, following Saturday’s victory. “The last two weeks, these guys have been clicking on all cylinders, and they wanted this very badly.”
ESM lost the first set in the finals to Spencerport, 25-18, but rebounded with a 25-15 win in the second set. The third set was close but ESM pulled it out, 25-23, which seemed to fuel the Sharks in the fourth set as they led for much of the time. Spencerport wouldn’t go quietly, though.
ESM was a point away from clinching the state title at 24-17, but, the Rangers went on a 6-0 run to make it a 24-23 game, prompting Stiriz to take two timeouts while his team was stuck on 24. Following the second timeout, senior Ryan Byrne, fittingly enough, came up with a kill giving ESM the final point it needed to celebrate the victory.
“I think they were trying to be too fine and testosterone took over a little bit and they said, ‘Well, I want to end this in a very dramatic way,’ and they were tightening up a little bit,” Stiriz said of his players in the final moments of the match. “That’s what I was asking them to do during the timeouts, ‘Loosen up, let’s just play our game still, let’s not get out of it.’
“I guess it was nervousness, but, when push came to shove, they came through,” he added.
Byrne was named the MVP of the Division II tournament, finishing the final match with 30 kills, nine digs, four blocks and an ace. Senior setter Parker Bachisin (44 assists, six digs), junior Brennen Brandow (15 digs, seven kills, two blocks) and junior Tommy Ogeka (10 kills, nine digs, two blocks and an ace) were all named to the state All-Star team. ESM was also given the New York State Sportsmanship Award and senior Jake Danowski was given the individual Sportsmanship Award.
“It’s a great feeling,” Byrne said of winning the state title. “This is the first state championship Eastport South Manor has won and just being a part of it for my senior year is the best gift I could have asked for.”
As for winning the MVP, Byrne gave much of the credit to his teammates. “It was a team victory overall,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it without our setter, and I couldn’t have done it without our passing and defense. And our team couldn’t have done it without our bench either. In practice, that’s who we’re versing, that’s our biggest competition and I love them all.”
Quinn Foglia, a junior and Remsenburg resident, shared the sentiments of Byrne. “We all pulled together, especially our second team,” he said. “We needed them the most. We need them for their cheering, and that really brought us closer and that’s what family is all about.”
Speaking of family, there is a huge sense of it throughout the ESM volleyball program, starting with the Brandow family. Before Brennen took to the varsity court, his brothers—Connor, Ryan and Tyler—had all put on the same uniform but have since graduated. Brennen took a few pointers from his older siblings.
“They just told me to keep my head in it and play as hard as you can, so that’s what I did,” he said. “I put everything out there on the court. I did it for all of my seniors, for all of the team. They deserve this as much as anyone. I’m just happy for them.”
The ESM volleyball family filled up a good portion of the stands in Brentwood on Saturday, with a number of former players coming out to see the team finally win a state title. Jason Baris graduated from ESM in 2011 and was on the first Sharks team to ever reach states in 2010. He, along with 1996 Westhampton Beach grad Chris Barton, both played for Stiriz during their high school years and are now assistant coaches under Stiriz.
“This is a family,” Stiriz said. “When family graduates it doesn’t mean that they’re not family anymore. And we’ve always had that understanding at ESM. The guys come back for all kinds of things. Thank God that I’m in their life after they graduate.
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful experience to coach where I’m coaching,” he continued. “The young men I’m with, I’m blessed to be in this situation.”
It’s quite clear the feeling is mutual.