Playing ‘proud for Shelter Island’

BRIANNA RIETVELT PHOTO | The Shelter Island varsity volleyball team celebrating the finish of an undefeated regular season late last month. They took the Suffolk County crown in their division for the 10th year in a row.

It’s a question I’ve heard a lot this past week: “Is the volleyball team going to the state championships?”

The answer: Close, but not this year.

The road to “states” has several steps. First a team must win its section. New York is divided into 11 athletic sections, most composed of several counties. We are in Section XI, all of which falls in Suffolk County. After that there is a two- or three-way race to win the region. As a Class D school, we are in the Southeastern region, where sections 1 (Westchester/Putnam/Dutchess counties), 9 (Rockland,/Orange/Sullivan/Ulster) and 11 (Suffolk) must battle it out to qualify for the state Final Four.

Shelter Island logged a lot of bus hours in the past week. After playing Pierson at Patchogue -Medford on November 4 to claim the Suffolk County and Section XI crown, the team headed to West Point on November 6 to play the Section IX champs.

After a four hour journey, we disembarked to face the SS Seward Institute Spartans of Florida, New York.

In 2010 we easily defeated Seward in the regionals. It was only their second year as a varsity program, and they were overmatched as the Island rolled on to states. However, I noticed that the coach seemed to be knowledgeable and teaching good concepts. Three years later the Spartans are a vastly improved team. As one of only two Class D programs in Section IX, they boasted a healthy 13-5 record, mainly against larger schools.

While both squads showed a bit of nerves, it was evident that both very much wanted to win this match. Shelter Island played tremendous defense and serve/receive — the best all season. The Seward coach praised our play as tenacious. The rallies went on and on, not just once, but on nearly every point. During the first set the Island mixed up its offense between hard hits and smart tipping, lessons learned from tournament play this season. We took the first set 25-19, but Seward was able to surge from behind to capture the second 27-25. It was exciting, and as I handed in the line-up for the third set, I was smiling. I love a challenge, and even remarked to the scorers and officials, “This is fun!”

They agreed. Nothing beats evenly matched teams playing hard.

The match continued with a tremendous team effort. Every Island player had kills and every server had aces. Amira Lawrence and Bre Rietvelt rose to the occasion to “block for points,” while Erin and Kelly Colligan and Margaret Michalak’s determined digs frustrated the Spartan hitters. We took the third set 25-17. On the edge of elimination, Seward doubled down, and the fourth set was a point-for-point battle, with the Island calling a time out at 16-16. The Blue and Gray adjusted, squared their shoulders and went on a 9-2 run to win the match 25-18, and advance to the Regional Finals.

As one of eight Class D teams in New York State still playing this late in the season we had the distinct disadvantage to play the 2012 state runner-up and our perennial Section I roadblock, the Haldane Blue Devils.

Haldane is a larger Class D school with about 70 students per graduating class, contrasting with Shelter Island’s entire high school enrollment of 70. An all-too-familiar foe, they are a well-coached team with dedicated volleyball athletes.

Last year Haldane had shaken us with extremely tough serving. This year the Blue and Gray has much better serve/receive, and tougher servers of our own.

However, we do not have as dominating a blocking presence, which proved to be difficult.

The Blue Devils sported two excellent hitters with a nice supporting cast, resulting in a very potent offense. Haldane’s Kelly Vahos, a 6’2” junior, is being recruited by Division 1 colleges such as Seton Hall and Harvard. Off the court, she is a rather modest and pleasant person. Easily the strongest hitter we have seen all season, she blasted Haldane to a 9-1 lead early on. I liken it to a basketball team scoring its first five baskets with dunks. It wasn’t that we didn’t know who would get the ball, it was a matter of figuring out how to stop her. It took us the first set, a 9-25 loss, to process the ferocity of their attack and adjust our mindset and defense.

But this year’s team is a mix of seniors with perspective, sophomores with fire and a freshman with no preconceptions. While each approached the game with her own philosophy, the strong friendships and pride forged in hours and hours together on the court allowed them to support each other in all situations. Kenna McCarthy’s first serve of the second set was an ace, one of her four for the match. That allowed us to take a breath and realize we could play with this team. MeMe Lawrence dug in to deny an uncontested kill by Haldane’s other power hitter, Katie Cunningham. A combination of tenacity and a few kills by Erin and Margaret allowed the Island to score 17 points in the second set.

With our backs against the wall, we started the third set with resolve. Kenna aced the Blue Devils in three of five of her serves, to put us out in front 5-0. Amira blocked Cunningham to keep things even in the middle of the set before the Haldane offense kicked into gear again and finished the match with a score of 25-15.

Heads held high, we congratulated Haldane and wished them the best at the state tournament.

A playoff tradition was started at the November 4 team dinner. We adapted the catchy camp song “Pizza Man” to our volleyball season. Each player contributes a verse, with the entire song complete only when every person has had her input. From “I’m going to set it up so right, you’re going to hit it down with might” to “I may only be 5 foot 3, but my serves will sting you like a bee” the song celebrates what it takes to be a team. The final refrain, repeated many times throughout the song, states “With this volleyball in my hand, I play proud for Shelter Island.”

There is no doubt that this 2013 season was a complete success in so many ways. I will miss this band of sisters who fought hard, had fun and played well. As undefeated League VIII, Suffolk County champions and regional finalists, they have made memories to last a lifetime. And with a song in their hearts (or more likely, stuck in their heads) they will remember this season where all were valued for their contributions and “played proud” for Shelter Island.