They say it’s never over until it’s over.
The Shelter Island volleyball varsity team had played well in their last match of the season against the Pierson Whalers on Tuesday, October 25, but had lost the match to the league leaders in three straight. That put our final league record at 3-7, below .500 which is normally required for playoff consideration, effectively ending our hopes to make it to the post season. But hang on — it’s been an unusual season.
Senior Amira Lawrence, who had been attempting to get her sports medical clearance since August, had finally been approved to play, leaving exactly the minimum number of practices to become qualified to compete in the Pierson game. However, the team has been together for over two months, and adding the All-Conference player wasn’t a simple plug-in and play. Wedged between league contests, we worked to see where Amira would best benefit the team while respecting the hard work the other players have brought to the court all season long. In the end we went with three different lineups in the three different sets against the Whalers.
The norm this year of injury and unexpected conflicts was the same during the first set. We didn’t have starters Nichole Hand and Phoebe Starzee who were paying their respects at Christian Goody’s wake that night. Olivia Yeaman filled in ably on the right side for Phoebe, while Amira took Nichole’s position at outside hitter. Sarah Lewis distributed the ball well, allowing middle hitter Domily Gil to swing hard, while Melissa Frasco’s defense dug up both Pierson’s hard hits and tracked down their tricky tips.
Amira has a big jump, a strong arm and she hits the ball hard. The Whalers’ expressions seemed to say: “Where did she come from?” as their defense struggled to adjust to the speed of our tuned-up offense. Nicolette Frasco has come on strong the last part of the season and her blocking instincts have blossomed. Julia Labrozzi doesn’t have a hard serve, but by placing it in unexpected spots she scored multiple aces. Nichole Hand served 8 straight points in the third set, putting us up 14-7. However, despite a strong showing with scores of 25-23, 25-19 and 25-20, a mix of hitting errors, ball handling faults, missed serves and serve/receive miscommunications allowed Pierson to take the match.
As Pierson was crowned the League VIII champs we clapped politely, but gathering in the hall following the presentation there were more than a few tears. We felt the season was over. The team circled up and shared thoughts about the fall we had spent together; sad, but proud of our effort, we walked back into the gym.
But after our win over playoff-bound Port Jefferson on October 18, Athletic Director Todd Gulluscio and I contemplated petitioning Section XI officials to allow us to be the Class D representative for the county. We’re the only Class D team on Long Island and play all larger teams, which puts us at a disadvantage. Other schools have used this strategy; we hoped this, along with supporting evidence that we can play at a high enough level to properly represent Suffolk County in the playoffs, would result in a favorable ruling.
Todd was there, calling me over, saying, “We need to talk.” I noticed an excited gleam in his eye. “You are a different looking team with the addition of Amira. She adds a lot of firepower,” he said. “I think we have a shot if we petition Section XI for playoffs.”
Having just gone through a heartrending end-of-season closing circle, I felt as though I was in a dream as I approached the team and explained the possibility that the season might not be over. The team was also disbelieving, but agreed we had nothing to lose and voted to petition for playoffs. Captains Julia Labrozzi and Melissa Frasco reported the team’s decision to Todd and we boarded the bus back home.
On Friday when the announcement was made that we were given permission to go to playoffs, shouts of joy from the team members rang through the halls.
We now have until Tuesday, November 8 to put together our best lineup as we prepare to face the Section IX Class D champions at Hauppauge High School at 4 p.m.. A win would allow us to face the Section I champs. And a win there would propel us to the Final Four at States. It’s a long shot, but Island volleyball has been through a lot this season, and another skin-of-our-teeth victory would fit right into this crazy fall.
The junior varsity is young. The eight players are all freshman, with the exception of Jane Richards, who is an 8th grader. With such an inexperienced team, you expect it will get much better as the season progresses, and this crew did not disappoint. In the first half of the season it managed a set victory over just Port Jefferson. But in the second half, the team won a set each against Stony Brook, McGann-Mercy and Pierson. The only squad they didn’t beat at all was Greenport.
The final match of the season against the Whalers on October 25 showed the growth of the team on many levels. All players showed much improved court positioning and movement. Jane Richards made a great effort in a must-save situation and put the ball over where it dropped on the astonished Whalers’ side. However, serve/receive problems plagued us and we dropped the first set 25-11.
During the second set, Coach Jim Theinert noticed something interesting. Our serving, although much improved over the season, is still a bit unpredictable. Serve/receive continues to be our Achilles heel. However, once a rally is started and the ball crosses the net more than once, the Island wins the majority of the points.
Down by 4 points early in the second set, Coach Theinert called a timeout and asked a curious question: What is the score? The puzzled players looked at the scoreboard and answered, “We have 7 and Pierson has 11.” “No,” Coach Theinert replied. “If you only count the points scored once we get into a rally, we are winning 4-3.”
Armed with the realization and confidence that they can really play with the opponents, the players went on a run. Amelia Reiter tipped the ball over for a point, Jennifer Lupo scored another on a spike and then Amelia Clark served 10 straight and the team won the second set 25-19.
During the third set our serve/receive again became a problem, letting the Whalers build a 8-0 lead. Coach Theinert reminded the team to get into a rally and the hustling and teamwork resumed. Lyng Coyne passed a nice ball to Reiter who set up Audrey Wood for a terrific deep court kill. Isabelle Topliff served five errorless balls and Maria Carbajal then put the ball up to Coyne who got it to Lupo for a kill. Unfortunately the Whalers still managed to take the set and win the match, but with heads held high, the young players ended their season, secure in the knowledge that they are only getting stronger.
With a small cadre of older athletes in the gym, this young crew will be called on to step up next year, with some becoming varsity athletes while only sophomores. They have the talent and drive and Coach Jim Theinert and I can’t wait to see them back in the gym next fall for Shelter Island Volleyball, version 2017.