Preaching his famous “corner our performance” response throughout, what’s proved almost as rare as Needham’s 73-game win streak is head coach Dave Powell acknowledging it – let alone opening up about it to reporters.
Yet, in the moments after the Rockets realized a third straight perfect season by beating Newton North in the Div. 1 state final at Worcester State, becoming just the third MIAA boys volleyball program to three-peat, he had much more to say in reflection of a challenging year.
The picture that opposing coaches painted in the preseason suggested that this season – of all three since the pandemic – presented the best chance for a different team to raise the championship trophy. They said the Div. 1 state tournament was wide open for the first time since 2019, and they weren’t wrong.
In turn, the target on Needham’s back was larger than ever. Constant updates of the growing historic mark served as a daily reminder of exactly what the Rockets tried not to focus on. Every set opposing teams won was met with a roar as if they had just won the state title – an energy Needham was tasked to match often.
Needham definitely wasn’t unbeatable. But the fact that nobody could, en route to a program-record 27 wins this year, makes this Rockets undefeated season arguably their most special accomplishment yet.
Powell, who surpassed 300 career wins this year, felt every bit of it.
“There were various waves during the season, but toward the end, it just felt like a mission,” he said. “It did cross my mind that this could be the state title match that potentially ends the streak. … I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t taxing. These kids showed up and they didn’t really make it feel like work. We didn’t have to stay on our seniors, they were locked in. We were just in it.”
The extension of the win streak was just the headliner of an extremely entertaining year that once again proved the value of the newer statewide tournament format.
In the old format, the two best teams in Div. 2 would have met in the Div. 1 West sectional final – which is the equivalent to the modern state quarterfinal. Instead, Agawam exorcised its postseason demons against Westfield in the sport’s first all-West state final – taking down the defending champs for the Brownies’ first state title since 2013.
The same goes for Div. 1, with three members of the Bay State State Conference reaching the Final Four after years of battling to get out of the Div. 1 South.
That included heated rivals Brookline and Newton North meeting for a five-set thriller in the semifinals. For the Tigers, much of that run was a team finally fulfilling its potential despite a string of debilitating injuries. The Warriors’ trip was much more surprising with three underclassmen starters, but was a strong reminder of that exact parity coaches preached in the preseason as the No. 11 seed.
Their path included taking down a Natick group that was expected to make a run at the state title before its early exit, and defeating feel-good story Acton-Boxboro in a strong season that suffered just two losses.
Much of the rest of the state showed plenty of that parity as well. Junior-laden Milford put forth another memorable trip to the Div. 2 state semifinals, and was the closest team to defeating Needham all year with a 13-11 lead in the fifth set. That still didn’t slow down Agawam in its quest for the decade-long struggle for another championship.
Lexington had one of its most dangerous rosters yet in Div. 1, even beating Winchester for the first sole rights to the newer Middlesex League. It couldn’t overcome Cambridge in the Falcons’ strongest season since last winning the state title in 2012.
North Quincy returned much of the cast that propelled it to last year’s Div. 2 state final and was a favorite to return back to the stage. O’Bryant beat it for the Tigers’ first trip to the state semifinals, in representation of a potentially strong Boston City League future.
St. John’s of Shrewsbury was the other team to reach its first state semifinal, topping Catholic Conference rival St. John’s Prep to get there in Div. 1. A breakout year for BC High added another thrill factor out of the conference.
Lowell shined brightest out of a mega-competitive Merrimack Valley Conference before running into Newton North in the tournament, while Methuen enjoyed its best season in over a decade. The junior-heavy conference should be even more exciting next year.
The sport continues to not just grow in quality, but quantity as well. Revere won the Greater Boston League in the program’s mere third year, which now has all eight schools rostering varsity teams. The Middlesex League expanded from four teams to six, and other new teams have continuously popped up every season.