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Regular-season foes unite for tourney title

Matt Kuda elevates to spike the ball for his Northeast team. The Northeast squad won the gold medal Sunday.

Matt Kuda elevates to spike the ball for his Northeast team. The Northeast squad won the gold medal Sunday.

As a tandem, Andy Henriquez and Matt Kuda are pretty formidable on the court.

Whether it is their precise passing, thunderous smashes, or loud blocks, the one-two punch for the Northeast scholastic boys’ volleyball squad is tough to beat.

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In their first match of the annual Bay State Summer Games last Saturday against the Central squad at the Clark Athletic Center on the University of Massachusetts Boston campus, Henriquez and Kuda got off to a bit of a slow start, not having the touch and precision that they normally possess.

But in their second pool-play match Saturday against Metro, the two volleyball all-stars attempted to regain their form and take charge.

“The first game we played, we didn’t have too much of a connection,” said Kuda, a 6-foot-4 middle hitter from Chelmsford.

“We said right off the bat, ‘Let’s set me and see what happens.’”

That’s exactly what they did.

In the second game, Henriquez, a 6-foot-3 center from Lawrence, perfectly set a pass to Kuda for the kill to give the Northeast team the first point of the game.

Kuda smiled and hugged his teammates after watching the ball smash into the ground. From there, the pair went on cruise control and played key roles in the Northeast’s 25-18, 25-14 win against the West squad in the final round of pool play.

“When they got on the court, they were a little nervous and they had to loosen up,” said Northeast head coach Tony Hajjar, who was on the bench for his 15th Bay State Games competition. “They got comfortable. They got together, and they did their thing.”

At first glance, an observer would come away with the impression that the pair have played together for years. But last weekend’s Bay State Games competition was just the second time the two have been teammates; the first was in the BSG last summer.

“The first time we played together, we both weren’t too knowledgeable of the game,” said Kuda “But we’ve had so many reps together and gained so much experience.”

A rising senior at Lawrence High, Henriquez put together a stellar junior season, his first as a starter, racking up 654 assists, 150 kills, and 85 blocks. He earned Merrimack Valley Conference All-Star and Globe All-Scholastic honors for a 19-5 Lancer squad that advanced to the North final before losing to Acton-Boxborough in five sets.

Kuda, a rising senior at Chelmsford High, finished with 319 kills, 87 blocks, 23 aces, and a .563 hitting percentage, leading the Lions to a perfect 18-0 regular-season mark.

Chelmsford swept Lawrence with relative ease during the regular season, but in the North semifinal, Lawrence eliminated Chelmsford in five sets, a shocking end for Kuda and his teammates.

Although he was disappointed with the loss, Kuda was quick to point to the performance of Henriquez as a major factor in Lawrence’s upset.

“Andy is definitely the best center in our league and one of the best in the state,” Kuda said. “He’s a great option to attack the ball also, which not many centers can do. His ability to do that really [threw] us off.”

As teammates last weekend, Kuda and Henriquez found that the transition from foe to friend was not that hard, Hajjar said.

“It’s easy, believe it or not,” he said. “They [already have] a friendship together, just the way you see them walking around. That friendship is right there.”

Kuda agreed.

“Normally as a hitter and a center, it’s tough to click together,” he said. “We just click instantly when we’re playing together.”

Having fun is a big part of their chemistry.

“It’s fun. There’s nothing to get down about,” added Henriquez. “We’re always smiling.”

Despite their many battles during the school season, Henriquez said that when they are on the court together, none of that matters.

“When we’re going against each other, we’re enemies, but when we’re on the court together we just play,” he said.

Hajjar, also the head coach at Lawrence High, said he loved watching Henriquez, Kuda, and the rest of the Northeast players integrate into a unified team, even if it only lasted for one weekend.

“It’s a pleasure,” he said. “It carries onto the season. They’re still buddies. They still laugh and shake hands when they see each other, even though they’re going to be playing [against each other].”

Northeast middle hitter Connor Peterson, a rising senior at Haverhill High, said that playing alongside Henriquez and Kuda was like opening presents at Christmas.

“They’re so easy to play with,” he said.

Outside hitter Joe Markey added, “They are just two of the best teammates you can ask for. “Playing with really good kids on a team, there’s nothing better.”

Henriquez likes the way Kuda hits the ball, and Kuda lauded his teammate’s ability to either set the ball or attack. “It can leave a defense guessing,” he said.

After a long weekend filled with kills, blocks, and aces, Henriquez and Kuda finished the tournament in style, leading the Northeast team to the gold medal on Sunday with a three-set 25-21, 23-25, and 15-7 win over Metro.

Both agreed: Gold is nice, but friendships are forever.

Isaac Chipps can be reached at isaac.chipps@globe.com.
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