WESTFIELD – Tyler Wingate was forthright and thoughtful in his responses after his team lost for the first time all season. He talked about the talent on the other side of the net and how a third-set letdown seemed inevitable.
When asked about the opponent’s talent level – a standard rarely seen in the part of the state – Westfield’s coach let out a concealed laugh and took a few seconds to find an answer.
What does Needham do so well?
Translation: Where do I start?
“Just about everything,” Wingate eventually replied, “to be honest with you.”
Ten days after Needham defeated Westfield, the teams are still ranked 1-2 in the state, according to Mass High School Volleyball. The defending state champion Rockets are 14-0 heading into their match with Natick; the Bombers have started a new winning streak and are 16-1.
But on May 7, Needham fought off a second-set scare to win another match in three sets.
“They’ve got a really good roster,” Wingate continued. “The quality of play is the biggest thing. We don’t see it all the time, but that’s what we strive to get.”
The middle set is what the many spectators expected to see at Westfield High’s gym.
Trailing by a point on three separate occasions as the score reached the 20s is a scenario repeated frequently for Needham.
More:Needham boys volleyball: Rocket road trip (Part I) – ‘It’s helped me grow’
The Rockets had just won their 100th consecutive set when Westfield threatened to stop the streak that goes back to 2019. The Bombers led 21-20, then 22-21, then 23-22. The usually-consistent Ben Putnam and Ethan McCarron were struggling.
But setter Raymond Weng and middle/outside hitter Derek Yang picked up their play – displaying Needham’s unmatched depth. Five points later, after senior Kevin Coppinger’s block at the net fell to the court on the Westfield side, Needham celebrated a 26-24 victory.
“A lot of our games aren’t too close, so we knew we were going to have a good one here,” Coppinger said after the match. “We practice those scenarios because we don’t get too many in games. We still knew we could pull it out.”
“We’ve been in situations like that – not much – but we’ve been in situations where we’ve been losing close games like that,” senior Nolan Leary said. “Just stay the course and trust our guys. We go at each other every day in practice and it’s no different from playing in a game.”
Needham won the first six points of the third set and had little trouble in closing out the match, 25-11.
“It’s just a natural letdown,” Wingate said of the final set. “You talk about it: ‘hey, let’s get back up.’ But they’re kids. That’s a tough one to come back from.”
The large crowd only added to the atmosphere. There were chants of “Let’s go Bombers!” and a curious “over-rated” cheer, but very few “Seven Nation Army” shouts – which usually accompany rallies by the home team.
Only one side of the gym was open to spectators, but the bleachers were nearly filled to capacity.
“Oh my god. It felt like a state championship game to me,” Leary said. “All these people coming at me and chirpin’ at me. Loved every second of it. That’s why we come two and a half hours here: for an atmosphere like that and to play a team like that.”
More:Needham boys volleyball: Rocket road trip (Part II) – Nolan Leary ‘the motor, the energy guy’
“The energy in the building right from the get-go was more than we’ve experienced in a while,” Coppinger said. “It was like a playoff environment.”
Needham, like Westfield, again has state championship aspirations. The pair has won all but one of the past six titles and may see each other again in June. After a canceled season (2020) and a spring that included no non-conference, regular-season matches (2021), the trip to Westfield benefitted both teams.
“We want to be able to handle anything,” Needham assistant coach Patrick Helmas said. “If it’s a close game with a 10-minute bus ride over to Newton or Wellesley, we can handle that. But if it’s an hour and a half out here, we have to be tested against all the elements and all the conditions that we might encounter. In playoff time, you don’t know what you’re going to get, so to have that kind of challenge is valuable for us.”
Follow Tim Dumas on Twitter: @TimDumas.