Boys volleyball preview: Ridgefield hopes to surprise

It’s happened many times before: The Ridgefield High boys volleyball team graduates all-everything players, finds others to replace them, and goes about its business of competing for post-season titles.

This spring, though, the Tigers face one of their most challenging makeovers. Gone are three of the best players in program history — Henrik Liapunov, Nick Laudati and Jack Lincoln — as well as several other starters and key contributors.

“A lot of people think we are going to be bad this year,” said head coach Lidania Cibere, whose team went 21-3 last season, losing to Darien in both the conference finals and the Class L state semifinals. “But we are better than I expected. A lot of kids who were on the bench last year have really improved and are ready for their opportunity.”

[The Tigers opened the season with a 3-0 win over Fairfield Ludlowe on Wednesday night. See recap at end of this story].

In 6’2” senior outside hitter Christian DeVivo, Ridgefield does return one player with serious bonafides. DeVivo finished with 208 kills, 147 service points, 24 blocks, and 108 digs in 2017 and will be even more of a focal point for the Tigers offense this season.

“He’s one of the best, if not the best, outside hitters in the state,” said Cibere about DeVivo. “Teams will have a tough time trying to shut him down.”

Ridgefield’s other returning starter is senior Andrew Knachel, who moves from libero to setter to replace Liapunov. “He is athletic enough that he moves around the court really well,” said Cibere about Knachel, who had a team-best 161 digs last year while adding 89 service points and 22 assists. “He’s already doing things that a seasoned setter would do.”

Despite the graduation departures of middle hitters Myles Peckham and Josh Verdejo, Cibere doesn’t believe there will be a drop-off at the position.

“We have two juniors, Shane Meyer (6’4”) and Thomas Groves (6’5”), who both did a good job in the off-season,” said Cibere. “I actually think we can be stronger at middle hitter this year.”

With Knachel switching to setter, junior Andrew Masciotti takes over as the starting libero.

“Any other year, Andrew would be a hitter,” said Cibere. “But right now he’s our best option for defense.”

Evan Jones, a 6’4” junior, is the leading candidate to start as right-side hitter, with classmate Cameron Scott looking to flank DeVivo as an outside hitter.

Seniors Will Hunter and Eric von Recklinghausen are the defensive specialists, and fellow senior Henry Nelson (6’5”) adds height and experience at middle hitter.

Sophomore Max Stafford is the back-up setter, while senior Lucas Debarbieri, junior James Rudnicki, and sophomores Matthew Lincoln, Matt Sorgie, and Chris Knachel add depth at several positions.

“The key to the season will be passing; if we can do that I think we can be pretty good,” said Cibere. “Our expectations are still the same. We want to compete in every match and challenge for the FCIAC and state titles.”

Notes: DeVivo and Knachel are the team’s captains.

The Tigers’ first home match is Friday at 5:30 against Danbury.

Liapunov (742 assists, 259 service points, 95 digs) and Laudati (275 kills, 136 service points, 51 blocks) were named to the All-FCIAC and Class L All-State teams for the second straight year last season. Jack Lincoln (204 kills, 142 service points, 77 digs) made the All-FCIAC second team.

Ridgefield’s 3-2 defeat to Darien in the Class L semifinals ended its bid for a Connecticut record-tying fourth consecutive state championship. The Tigers’ 3-0 loss to Darien in the FCIAC title match marked the fifth straight year that Ridgefield fell in the conference finals.

With Darien also graduating several of its best players, Cibere said that Staples is considered the pre-season FCIAC favorite. The Wreckers return most of their key performers from last spring’s team, which lost to Ridgefield, 3-1, in the Class L quarterfinals.

Ridgefield swept Ludlowe by scores of 25-6, 25-13, and 25-9 in the season opener Wednesday in Fairfield.

DeVivo had 17 kills and four digs for the Tigers, and Andrew Knachel added 26 assists and three service points.

Chris Knachel finished with 23 service points (four aces) and nine digs, while Masciotti contributed 13 service points and 17 digs.