Can the Cambridge boys volleyball team repeat?

Cambridge vs Milford in the boys state volleyball championship. Cambridge player Kevin Lovaincy(4) looks to set up Jalen Penrose(3) Jon Mahoney/For the Boston Globe
In last year’s state final, Cambridge’s Kevin Lovaincy (4) looked to set up Jalen Penrose (3) for another kill. Penrose is now trying to set up Cambridge for another championship run. (Jon Mahoney/ File for the Boston Globe)
The Boston Globe

Returning state champion Cambridge is one of the few boys’ volleyball squads to remain intact with their most potent offensive player, Jalen Penrose, an unquestionable threat on the state’s best team.

Falcons coach Kelley Leary has anticipated the increased attention for Penrose, her son – especially after he hit .465 in his last game – and is focused on using him in a “supporting role.”

“Part of it is helping to develop other players and let them lead a bit and push them to step up,” Leary said.

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Despite Penrose’s all-around consistency – serving, passing, blocking, and hitting, which he holds the season record for under coach Leary (499 kills) – “he can’t be the whole thing by himself,” she said.

Now in his senior year, Penrose has a chance to repeat as a state champion. Cambridge played Milford to five sets, winning in the state final 3-2, where he accounted for 40 of the squad’s 81 kills. The title was the Falcons’ first since 2003 and first under head coach Leary after ending Milford’s win streak at 42 matches.

The 6-foot-7 Penrose, who was the DCL player of the year, led the state with 499 kills last season and a .400 hitting percentage. He will need to fill big gaps this season without Kevin Lovaincy (St. Anselm) and Robbie Buderi (McGill University), who were undoubtedly last year’s catalysts.

Another asset for the squad is returning setter Rodolfo Bonates. The senior entered the season with 1,700 assists, according to Leary, making a sure bid for the 2000 mark this season. Bonates already has one 38-assist outing in this young season. Penrose is 30 kills away from reaching the 1000-point club and both athletes, who are being pursued by Division 1 collegiate programs.

“Good things are happening and I’m curious to see how it plays out,” Leary said.

However, the potential Leary sees in practice hasn’t been translated onto the court for games, despite the Falcons starting a perfect season with a straight set win over Central Catholic and a 3-1 win over Boston Latin. The Falcons scrimmaged with Lincoln-Sudbury, a squad that is starting fresh after graduating all 14 players, including their best, William Shimkus (Wentworth).

State semifinalist Newton North returns without two powerhouse players, Globe Player of the Year Luke Westman (Colby) and Michael Thorpe (Emerson), but is “stronger than anticipated based on the number of players who played throughout last season,” said coach Richard Barton. “Our team is solid despite losing premier players.”

Barton has the full intention of competing at the state’s highest level with his squad’s strongest performance in blocking, passing, serving, and serve. Expect three-year varsity players Randy Tow (setter), Andrew Leaper (opposite), Corey Mui (outside) to have a big role. Barton is also excited about newcomer and varsity basketball player Sheamus Bruno in middle.

Like Cambridge, Barton’s biggest concern is a “loaded” Milford team. When asked about Cambridge, Barton said, “they are not going to think much of us, but they’ll be surprised.”

“They have one of the state’s [top] attackers and he can be really damaging, but we have more payers who can do things and they have one singular and that’s what it’ll be a battle,” he said. The Tigers are also off to a perfect start with wins over Framingham and Braintree.

Newton South coach Todd Elwell agrees that Milford and Lawrence are top contenders in the state, as he has yet to find a hole in Lawrence’s game.

The Lions have graduated five of six starters, but Elwell said the squad reloads every year and he is confident to make a run at sectionals.

“I feel pretty good at where we’re standing,” he said. And although his eyes are on Cambridge, he said “It’s hard to win volleyball with one good player.”

“It’s a weird year [with major losses to graduation],” Elwell said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two come out of woodworks.”

Newton South is solid in middle with senior captain Paul Vasiloff leading the pack. Elwell is pleasantly surprised and says his squad is ahead of course with Ben Snyder. The Lions have gone six straight sets to go 2-0 to start the season, with a better attack efficiency than last season.

Elwell’s goal is to use that efficiency to shake up Cambridge’s Penrose in a matchup.

“He can jump higher than anyone in the state and we’re going to have to slow him down a little bit,” Elwell said. His Lions stand at least 6-2 up front and with good efficiency on digging and serving, Elwell is confident his team will be back in the tournament for the program’s fifth year.

Andover has a chance to make a name for itself. Despite losing Joseph Kuykendall (James Madison), the squad looks to first-year coach E.J. Perry. Perry sports a 112-0 record with Salem (N.H.), claiming the state’s first six titles.

Expect the usual suspects – St. John’s Prep, Natick, Xaverian and North Quincy to fight for postseason spots.