Great teams are sometimes built on the most unassuming of foundations.
For the Freedom boys volleyball team, an 8-10 season in 2017 paved the way for much better things to come.
“The group of seniors from this year, as sophomores I knew that they were a special group along with the freshmen that came in that year,” Freedom coach John Yanek said. “Both were strong classes that had a lot of talent, so I knew that when they got to be juniors and seniors we could have something pretty special.”
With that group of juniors and seniors leading the way, the Patriots won 19 matches, and made it to the final of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference tournament and the semifinals of the District 11 Class 3A tournament.
For those reasons, Yanek is the lehighvalleylive Boys Volleyball Coach of the Year.
Coach Yanek knew that to capitalize on the young talent at his disposal he had to be patient in developing the team, even if his players struggled at times to see his long-term plan.
“We always have a theme every year and we have it on our warm-up shirts and our theme (in 2017) was build,” Yanek said. “We were starting to build something that the team had to work towards … Things were going to take a little bit of time because we were young and weren’t battle-tested yet on the court.”
Finishing 6-9 in the league that year, the Patriots ended the season in the District 11 tournament with a first-round 3-2 loss to Easton. With the season behind them, Yanek switched his team’s focus from building to believing.
“We needed to believe in what we were building … You have to believe that what you’re building now will pay off in the end,” Yanek said.
While Freedom made major improvements in 2018, finishing 15-6, the Patriots struggled against area powers like Emmaus, Parkland, Nazareth and Whitehall. The season ended the same way, a 3-2 loss in the opening round of the district playoffs, this time to the Blue Eagles.
Going into this season, Freedom’s theme was to become the team they had been working toward for the past two seasons, but Yanek knew that a lack of success in the postseason for two years in a row could knock the group’s confidence.
“I think the kids wanted to become something quicker than warranted, and so I think they thought the process might not have been worth it,” Yanek said. “I just kept telling them to believe in what the process is and continue to work and improve.”
The Patriots were in desperate need of a signature win in the 2019 campaign to validate their hard work. Freedom got that opportunity when it took on reigning EPC and District 11 champion Emmaus.
“They knew that if they beat Emmaus they had arrived,” Yanek said. “We were preaching that we’re a great team but we need to beat those teams that are above us. We were doing fine up until then, beating the teams that we should beat, but I think that was the match that let us believe that what we were doing had paid off.”
A 3-1 win over the Hornets, along with a 3-0 win over Nazareth the week after, gave Freedom plenty of confidence. That was until a second loss to Parkland brought the Patriots back down to reality.
“The first game against Parkland we knew we could do well, but it didn’t start as well as we had hoped and I think we got back into that mindset of ‘Here we go again; we’re good but not good enough,’” Yanek said. “The second time we played them, we took the first set because we followed the game plan to a T, but after that I’m not quite sure.”
Entering the EPC tournament as the third seed meant a third matchup with Parkland. Yanek thought his team might need a little bit of luck on its side to beat the Trojans for the first time in more than a decade.
“After we saw the matchup for the semifinals in the EPCs, the kids kept saying ‘Third time is the charm,’ so I wanted them believing in that going into the match,” Yanek said. “We really drilled in the game plan and worked on our defense to neutralize their attack … We took that first set and once the second set we started we stayed in control and I knew we could win.”
Freedom swept Parkland before being swept in the final by Whitehall. Going into the District 11 tournament as the fourth seed, another matchup with the Zephyrs was inevitable after the Patriots downed Emmaus in the opening round.
“I think we would’ve liked to go a little farther in the districts, but Whitehall was very, very strong this year,” Yanek said. “We lost five matches this year to two teams, Parkland and Whitehall, that was it.”
Even though the Patriots couldn’t capture a title, losing 3-1 in the district semifinal, Yanek was able to celebrate his 28th season at the helm with the program’s first wins in the district and league tournaments in several years.
Yanek believes that the success his team enjoyed this year, along with the depth of talent that gained experience, could set up Freedom for a better season next spring.
“You can have 18 subs and, in 28 years of coaching, I’ve very rarely run out of subs. This year, I did a couple times. I wasn’t subbing because we weren’t doing well, I was subbing because we
had a decent amount of talent,” Yanek said. “We got a lot of kids playing time, so I hope that helps for next year. Obviously, I would like to continue winning and I’ve set goals for these guys to win the EPC and win districts.”