Win streak ends at Final Four

The Shelter Island varsity volleyball team with their Final Four plaque: (back row) Mariah Jacobs, Shelby Willumsen, Lisa Rasmussen, Dana Ramos, Claire Read; (front row) Mackenzie Needham, Kelsey McGayhey, Rachael Heinze, Stephanie Vecchio, Haley Willumsen; (floor) Coach Cindy Belt, Assistant Coach Karen Gibbs.

There would be no storybook ending to Shelter Island’s bid for a state championship in volleyball. After a 16-0 run during the regular and post-season, the team headed upstate to Glens Falls and the Final Four on November 21. Despite moments of glory for nearly every team member, the Indians were unable to fulfill their dream of advancing into the Class D finals.

The excitement of an undefeated season and prestige of qualifying for the state tournament had captured the community’s imagination. Mike Mundy, Ed Kotula, Darrin Binder and other members of the soccer team that made the trip to states in their high school years relived the excitement and pride of their glory days. Ed Brown donated long-sleeved tee shirts to the League Champs, and Carl Manco gave the team pullovers for their efforts. 

Greeny’s presented the team with certificates for a free world famous smoothie. The PBA, Lions Club and 3-on-3 Tournament presented each athlete with a warm-up shirt, and one for each member of her family, complete with name and number. The entire school was present for a pep rally and send-off for the team on Thursday afternoon.

The team traveled up on Friday the 20th, and met the other 19 teams who had qualified for states at a banquet held in their honor. It was quite a sight to see over 200 girls dressed to the nines that night, knowing that the following day, they would ditch their heels, pull on their spandex and transform into kick-butt athletes. 

At the start of the competition on the morning of Saturday, November 21, the 12 teams playing in the Class D, C, and B semi-finals marched into the arena to the theme music of the Olympics. I was the very last person to enter the floor, and was thrilled to see the pride and excitement on the faces of those athletes who had trained for months to arrive at this moment.

Many family members made the long trip to Glens Falls to support the team. Looking up at the stands, a block of royal blue marked the hometown crowd. As the play began, the familiarity was comforting, for the Glens Falls Civic Center held three courts, all competing at the same time. Between balls bouncing, whistles blowing and fans beating drums, yelling their support and applauding their teams’ efforts, it was a very noisy and distracting environment.

The pool play format required each team to play each other in two 25-point sets. The Indians’ first opponent was Cattaraugus-Little Valley from western New York. This team boasted only 8 members, but the Timberwolves had bested their section’s number 1 and 2 seed to advance to states. Their big gun was an outside hitter, listed as an 8th grader. Not exceptionally tall, she was an athletically gifted powerhouse who frustrated the blue and grey’s blockers and defense. Shelter Island initially played well and jumped out to a 9-4 lead. C-LV battled back and tied it up at 15-15, going ahead on a thundering kill by their go-to hitter. The Indians’ offense sputtered after that, and the Timberwolves sprinted to a 25-16 win. Offensive errors by Shelter Island and tough serving by C-LV continued to frustrate the team at the start of the second set. Despite mounting a comeback after being down by 15 points, SI settled for a momentum shift moral victory as the Timberwolves prevailed 25-14. 

After sitting out one match, we took the floor against T. A. Edison from the Elmira area. Edison was a tough serving team with a well-mixed offense. Our blockers read their plays well, but the floor defense was unable to dig up the spikes that found their way through. Playing fairly evenly with the Spartans until mid-way through the set, we just couldn’t mount an effective offense, and lost the first set 15-25. In the second set we tried something different. Our regular lineup wasn’t working, so we went to a 5-1 offense which matched up a stronger block against their troublesome hitters. Unfortunately, in the fast-paced and high-pressure environment I inadvertently switched the positions of our middle and outside hitters. With strict substitution rules, we couldn’t undo the damage, and stuck in an unfamiliar rotation, the team did their best but lost in a lopsided 8-25 effort.

The final match was against Chateaugay, from the far northern Adirondack region. Back for the third year in a row, the Bulldogs had one very strong hitter. The game play was to key on their number 9, defend aggressively and take our chances against Chateauguay’s other hitters. The match was played immediately following the emotionally draining T. A. Edison loss. Once again we hung with the opponents through mid-set, but a string of SI hitting errors sandwiched by Bulldog kills led to a 12-25 loss. During the second set, Chateaugay dialed up their extremely tough serving, and they finished the match with a 25-10 victory.

Needless to say we learned a lot of lessons from our upstate experience. Some were practical: My list for next year will include some new training tips for the team, and some organizational preparations for myself in high pressure situations. 

Most lessons were intangible. We learned that despite the disappointment in the final outcome, we were still all friends at the end of the day. Our families were still supportive of our efforts. And we still are proud owners of the league, county and regional titles. 

On Saturday night, the weary team returned home and disembarked at the school. As the girls stepped from the bus, the boys’ basketball team stopped their practice to give their schoolmates a heart-felt standing ovation. A classy move by a community that cares.

Twenty years from now the minutiae of scores of the game, numbers of kills, and perhaps even who we played will be forgotten. Instead we will recall the laughter, the friendship and the pride of this remarkable 2009 season. It is certainly one to remember.