The first league match for the Shelter Island School volleyball teams was Friday, September 1.
A beautifully sunny and cool day, it felt like mid-September. Fans came to the morning game with signs, a couple of infants were there for their first match, and new athletes got to strut their stuff, all in advance of the first day of school.
The initial home game is always a mix of new season jitters, finding long-stored equipment and tracking down all essential personnel. The opponent, the Port Jefferson Royals, arrived early, by 9 a.m., as we were still finishing installing the net, figuring out the clock setup and training athletes how to complete the scoresheet.
But things settled down as the junior varsity squads began to warm up and the familiar rhythm of “pass, set, hit” calmed everyone’s nerves. Coach Laura Mayo had seven athletes ready for the match, and sent her young squad onto the court confident that they were ready for competition.
In the first set Grace Olinkiewicz showed she isn’t afraid to swing at the ball, and Audrey Wood’s much improved serving was a cause for cheers from the bench. Lydia Shepherd is also showing her arm strength and had a serving streak of 5 points, pulling Shelter Island to a 13-9 lead.
Unfortunately, a few errors from the Blue and Gray side allowed Port Jeff to mount a comeback and grab a 25-18 first set.
During the second set, the Island girls settled down. Abby Kotula donned the bright green jersey of the libero, a specialized defensive player who can substitute for any player in the back row. Kotula has proven to be an excellent addition to the squad. Her calm demeanor and quick feet saved many balls, and her strong, consistent arm delivered serve after serve. Jen Lupo and Shepherd showed a strong double block, and Maria Carbajal’s strong serves started a comeback when the home team was down, 21-24.
In volleyball, a team wins when they reach 25 points, as along as they are ahead by 2 points. Carbajal delivered three strong serves to pull us to 24-24 before a tension filled, point-to-point battle began. First the Royals would gain the upper hand, then the Blue and Gray. A spike by the visitors ended the game in “extra innings” at 29-27 to claim the victory.
At the JV level, three sets are always played. Amelia Reiter is still mastering her serve, but her increasing confidence in running the court as a setter will pay dividends as our offense continues to strengthen. Bella Springer is still getting qualified to compete and we look forward to having her on the court soon. In the third set, the Royals were able to put together three streaks of several points, and took the final stanza 25-12.
Coach Mayo was proud of the team’s effort. “It was a great first match for our girls,” she said. “They’ve been working so hard every day, sometime two times a day and it is really paying off.”
The JV’s long second set foreshadowed the intensity of the varsity match. The varsity squad is relatively young, with three returning players and the five remaining new to the varsity level.
The increased speed and consistency of rallies is a very different game than JV, which often relies on serving for points. Points needed to earned through solid play; the team needs to be able to play both offense and defense, as well as be flexible and more conditioned.
In the first set we ran a 6-2 offense, which allows Phoebe Starzee and Sarah Lewis to set half the time, then hit the other half. They have great communication, and Sarah ended up with five kills on the day. The Blue and Gray started strong and was up 20-15, but a strong Royals server and some errors on our part let them tie it at 20-20. We pushed ahead to 24-22, but a second surge by Port Jeff tied it, and two nice attacks gave them the win 27-25.
A bit shaken by the turnaround, we started the second set slowly, falling behind 12-17. However, Caitlin Binder’s first appearance in a volleyball jersey since 8th grade didn’t disappoint. A senior, she’s doing a great job as the team’s libero, facing down some hard hits and digging up the ball nicely. Sophomores Isabelle Topliff and Lyng Coyne traded spots in front and back row. Lyng is defensive specialist and back-up setter, but also took the front row as Topliff recovered from a brief injury.
We mounted a comeback, pulling to a 23-23 tie, then kept fighting to tie again at 25-25. Unfortunately, we couldn’t overcome seven serving errors and lost 25-27.
The final set was a bit of a rerun of the first. Stung by the closeness of the two loses, the Island girls jumped out to a 10-5 lead, then increased it to 15-9. However, Port Jeff seems to hit another gear in mid-set and came back with 7 straight points on a combination of smart offense and ours relative inexperience.
Junior Nichole Hand is the hardest hitter on the team, but she actually made the highlight reel with a couple of great defensive moves, hitting the floor to pop up some tough attacks. Jane Richards and Amelia Clark played the middle hitter/blocker positions, both going up to challenge hitters. Their ability to read developing plays and track the ball is essential to stopping an opponent’s attack.
As the set progressed we found ourselves down 21-24, but rallied to come back to tie it up 24-24.
However, it seems as though we will need to wait and develop that ability to buckle down and pull out those final 2 points. Port Jeff was able to score the last 2 points, winning a three set match by a total of 6 points — the absolute minimum needed.
While discomfited that we couldn’t pull out a win, I was proud of this young team for putting together some nice rallies. We will only become more confident in one another as the season progresses and our rotations and individual skills improve. I believe we are a team on the rise, and look forward to surprising the Royals when we see them again.
Our next home match is Wednesday, September 13 at 4 p.m. (JV) and 5:45 p.m. (varsity) against our neighbors across the water — and last year’s league champions — the Pierson Whalers of Sag Harbor. Come see us in action!