GRAND ISLAND — The state title is so close, the Vikings can almost taste it.
Grand Island (21-0) has been a terror in Section VI all season long, and now the Far West Regional champion will get to put its talents on display in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association boys volleyball championships today in Albany. The Vikings open up with Section XI's Southampton before they play Section III's Jamesville-DeWitt in Division II pool play.
The last two years have been stellar, particularly this season though, with the program winning the Niagara Frontier League championship, taking home its second straight Division II-A sectional title, its first D-II crossover title and the first regional crown in team history. Outside hitter Bill Wieberg and setter Zach Cramer have been major factors in the action, and they discussed some of their thoughts heading into the championship weekend.
"(We're) just gonna give it our all in the tournament, whatever happens, happens," Wieberg said. "It's been a pleasure playing with these boys."
"I guess you can say we've had a target on our back this year, with the success we had last year," Cramer said. "And to live up to those expectations and continue to play at the next level and get to states, it's pretty awesome."
This year of firsts could culminate with a state championship plaque. Winning the title would be the first for GI in any sport in school history. With this on many people's minds, the community has been downright giddy all week.
"(I'm) excited, a little nervous, a little stressed, but yeah, (it's been) awesome. Awesome week," head coach Bill Schultz said. " ... The school's been awesome. We don't usually get a big fan following brewing in the middle of the season. But man, they've been getting on buses, going to all our big playoff games. It sounds like they've got a fan bus going down to states now. It's been awesome, I mean, it's truly cool."
Wieberg and Cramer, both 2019 first team All-NFL selections, talked about the culture that Schultz has set and what has led to so much team success on the court.
"The culture and just the way everyone is around practice and around each other it's just amazing," Wieberg said. "I don't think you can ask for anything better from your teammates than we do here. It's great ... I think our work ethic's really good and I think when we're down in sets we don't panic, we don't get worried or anything. We all just come together and we play as a team, and that really helps."
"He's a great coach. The culture, as you mentioned, is very good. Ever since my freshman year, we've always had the same thought process — to go out and win volleyball games," Cramer said. "Freshman year we had a little bit of success. But the last two years, the success has shown. And I don't know if it's we've done anything different, but that culture has really stayed the same throughout everything."
Schultz is aware of how excited his players are, which is why he has tried to reign them in by instructing them to get their rest and to plan for the unique atmosphere that a state title tournament brings. As a 1999 GI graduate and a former Viking volleyball player, this moment feels just as big for Schultz outside of his role as the head coach.
The veteran head coach talked about the path this season, including getting over the hump of beating Section VI goliath Eden in the crossover title game. This helped propel GI t o last week's win over V-Churchville-Chili at regionals.
"It feels real good, because I know when I was here I was a pretty decent player," said Schultz, who took over for his former coach in Dave Kelly after a stint at Niagara County Community College and an All-American career at D'Youville College.
"We lost twice to Eden in the sectional finals in my senior and junior year. And then, as a coach too, it was always the stumbling block. We never could get past Eden. Getting to regionals was awesome, because I wasn't expecting us to win. I thought we could, but that was just icing on the cake.
"It's really cool to see that the program's doing well. We've got a lot of good volleyball players coming in. They're putting in the time out of school to get better, not just the three months I've got them here."
Schultz's volleyball acumen even took him to heights of being a professional beach league player for the Association of Volleyball Professionals, where he competed against the five-time AVP Tour Champions and Olympic gold medalists Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rodgers.
Considering all of this, Cramer knows how much the game of volleyball means to his head coach. With Schultz, seniors like all-leaguers Tom Shemick, Dave Wynne, Nick Keller, Brett Shickluna and Sean Murray, and the underclassmen all in mind, Cramer is hyped up for what this moment can bring for this group.
"I'm just excited to go out there and play with some of these seniors for the last time," Cramer said. "And hopefully help them, and obviously us juniors and sophomores, go win a state championship. And to do it for coach would be really cool and I think it would be a great moment."
The NYSPHSAA boys volleyball tournament's semifinal pool play will begin 10 a.m. today at the Albany Capitol Center. If the Vikings advance, they will go on to play in the D-II finals at 3 p.m.
For more from sports reporter Khari Demos, follow him on Twitter @riri_demos. Also, tune in to Khari as a guest Tony Caligiuri's 'Inside High School Sports,' 10 a.m. Saturdays on WGR 550.