The St. John’s volleyball team stormed into Bishop O’Connell in Arlington and swept the Knights 3-0 on Monday night.
That score obscures some last-minute tension, as the Cadets faced adversity in the third set and trailed for most of the final game. But the team closed a four-point deficit to tie the game at 18-18, and then went on a 7-1 run to close out the set and the match.
“In our mentality, we just thought we had to finish this — it’s late, we live far away,” junior Lauren Antonucci said. “We have the attitude and effort, and we just had to focus on finishing.”
The win gave the Cadets their third straight victory and a 5-2 overall record, despite a tough early-season schedule where five of their first seven matches were on the road.
“It has been very difficult,” said senior setter Rebecca Frye. “For our home games we get so hyped with everyone cheering for us. But on the road we don’t have that support.”
One of the keys to the Cadets’ early success has been the willingness of Antonucci to play a new position for the second consecutive year.
Last season, St. John’s shuffled its lineup and moved the then-sophomore out of her natural outside hitting position to improve the team’s flexibility. Antonucci was hesitant at first, but ultimately the move helped the team capture its fourth straight D.C. State Athletic Association crown.
“At the beginning it was hard and I really didn’t want to do it,” said Antonucci. “I got comfortable and then I realized I’m the person people can count on, and I love it.”
Once again, Antonucci is on the move, this time going from a setter to a libero. The junior has been quick to accept the change after seeing last year’s benefits.
“She likes it now,” Cadets coach Bill Pribac said. “Our coaching staff have talked to her and said her skill set is great at all positions. She has welcomed the challenge and is doing it for the team. She has really stabilized our backline.”
The shift moves Frye, who will play for James Madison University next fall, back to passing full-time after sharing the role with Antonucci and filling in as a hitter. “I like it a lot. I like running the court and knowing which ball I’m getting — I love knowing I’m going to get that second touch,” said Frye.
In addition, the change gives the team two great passers on both the front and back lines.
“We have really good communication,” Antonucci said. “Having me in control of defense and having her in charge of offense makes the team work a lot better.”
Frye said the faith is mutual.
“Having both of us setting was great, but this is an even better dynamic,” she said. “I know I have a trusty libero. I can trust her with the first ball; she can trust me with the second. We just click.”
The positional stability returns to the lineup as the team boasts a slew of strong outside hitting options in Anika Eigen-Zucchi and junior Nicole Taylor. Pribac moved Taylor to the other side of the floor this year, and she has worked well for the offense.
“She had a really good game against Good Counsel, and with her moving to the opposite side she has really balanced our offense,” Pribac said.
The team also welcomes strong freshman Rachael Richardson, whom Pribac compared to a former D.C. Gatorade player of the year.
“She has really started opening up things for us and being a dominant force for us as a freshman,” said Pribac. “I haven’t had someone like that since Darian Dozier coming in and making that kind of quick impact as a hitter. She can play all the way around.”
With a strong lineup of returning players and new talent, the Cadets believe they can climb back to the top of the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference.
“If we keep working on finishing, I definitely think we can do it,” said Frye.
In addition, the team is expecting to keep the DCSAA championship on Military Road, where it has been since its inception in 2013.
“We just need to bring it,” Antonucci said. “That’s our title. We want to keep it.”