With win streak at 45, Barlow boys volleyball hunts repeat CIAC title

Over the past two seasons, the Joel Barlow boys volleyball team hasn’t been just great, it’s been perfect.

With its latest shutout win over Xavier on Tuesday, the Falcons are on the doorstep of a second straight state championship after winning the first in program history last spring. The top seed, Barlow will take on No. 3 New Canaan in the final at 7 p.m., Thursday, at Pomperaug High in Southbury.

The Falcons carry a 45-match win streak into the final and are 24-0 this season, adding an even better sequel to last year’s 21-0 show. They’ve been dominant throughout, dropping just one set in two seasons, that coming in a 3-1 win over Newington in last year’s Class M final.

Coach Kevin Marino, a Barlow volleyball alum, said the consistency boils down to two key facets.

“It’s the preparation and how we push ourselves in practice,” Marino said. “And on top of that, there’s an ability to stay calm when things get stressful. Don’t overplay because a team’s pushing you. The next point is not bigger than any that you’ve already played.

“My guys are just hard-wired for that and each point is its own entity.”

The Barlow and New Canaan boys and girls volleyball programs have a strong connection. Marino coaches the Rams’ girls team in the fall, and New Canaan’s boys coach Amy Warren, is an assistant coach in the girls program.

The teams met in the first match this season, with Barlow winning 3-0, although Marino pointed out that previous meetings with teams won’t change the Falcons’ approach.

“There are scouting reports and things that we do and we want to execute those game plans,” Barlow said. “But it’s really about taking care of the ball on our side, serve-receiving well, keeping the pressure on teams from the service line with our offense and just being intelligent volleyball players.”

The Falcons are led by senior four co-captains: Leo Houser, Will Villhauer, Carter Janki and Benjamin Cerbin.

Houser, the setter, is a “big part” of what Barlow has accomplished, Marino said. He’s racked up 696 assists with 46 aces and 120 digs, and will continue playing at Roanoke College next year.

“He’s phenomenal and his mind for the game is pretty next level,” Marino said.

Houser has been setting up the Falcons’ two biggest weapons on offense in Villhauer, an outside hitter, and junior Ryan Schmid, a right side hitter.

They’ve both surpassed 250 kills — Villhauer has 272 and Schmid 242 — and contribute in numerous categories. Schmid leads the team in aces with 68, and has 37 blocks and 125 digs, while Villhauer has 56 aces and 154 digs.

Marino called Villhauer a great athlete, who has had a remarkable season considering he switched positions.

“Up until this season, he was a middle, even during club, so he’s made a position change and he’s worked so hard to make sure that he was up to speed with what we were asking him to do because the positions are so different,” Marino said.

Schmid is a rising star who Marino said is still learning the game, as last year was his first season on the court. The coach called him “a super-smart kid who takes everything in, processes it, and keeps it.”

Janki, a middle, is a wall at the net with a team-best 63 blocks.

Cerbin, the Falcons’ libero, has a team-high 179 digs and 32 aces, and Marino called him the emotional leader. The school president, Cerbin will attend Pomona College in California and hopes to go into the music business, according to Marino.

While the past two years have been a wild ride for Barlow, the future would appear to be right as well. The Falcons’ roster had 17 players last year, and this year 30 tried out, a surge of interest Marino attributed to the growth of the sport and Barlow’s success.

The enthusiasm within the program is high.

Marino said even when they have planned days off, the players are looking to do more and more to stay in the gym.

“I have a lot of guys who are willing to buy in,” Marino said. “They just want to be so good that they’re asking me to be in the gym more than I’m supposed to be. They’re asking me to get in there on days off, which we can’t do obviously, but they’ll go and get extra reps and stuff like that.

“It’s a special group of kids and they’re committed. They like to have a good time but when it comes time to work, they really push each other.”

david.stewart@hearstmediact.com; @dstewartsports