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Volleyball teams overcome struggles to come together

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO Stayin’ alive! Sarah Lewis at the net gets up to keep the Blue and Gray battling for the point
Stayin’ alive! Sarah Lewis at the net gets up to keep the Blue and Gray battling for the point

As an athletic season unfolds, one of the most edifying things for a coach is seeing athletes “get it” and become confident in their knowledge and skills of the game.

The Shelter Island volleyball team has had its share of injury, illness and schedule conflicts, which have forced both squads to be flexible. Changing positions and responsibilities takes focus, and to see young athletes embrace a new role and be successful is a great testament to their hard work.

Bishop McGann-Mercy visited the Island on October 11. With the Monarchs gym still under repair, we got an additional home match. It was great to see alums Nicolette and Melissa Frasco (SIHS ’17) here to cheer on the team.

Like Shelter Island, Mercy has improved overall, and their go-to big hitter was in excellent form.

While the varsity played fairly well, we have struggled with maintaining focus for a complete game. The jinx of pushing through to the end of the game was back. Despite some very nice efforts by individual players we lost 25-21, 25-21, 25-22.

The JV squad was a bit more successful against the Monarchs. Setter and super server Maria Carbajal has been sidelined for medical reasons, so Coach Laura Mayo has been working with Lydia Shepherd to take over the reins of the teams. Even as a first-year player, Lydia has responded with enthusiasm and a willingness to stretch herself, taking charge of the court.

Audrey Wood’s serving has been a success story this season, and she stymied the visitors by sending the ball deep in the back court, a huge improvement for her. Jen Lupo had an outstanding hustle to save a ball inches from the floor, eliciting cheers from both the bench and fans. Grace Olinkiewicz, who has been making steady progress on her serving in practice showed that she can be a gamer, too, putting her seven of 11 serves over and in, and scoring points. The Monarchs won the first two sets 25-18 and 25-17, but the Blue and Gray dug deep to take the final set 25-22.

Friday, October 13 marked a trip to Pierson, for the Sag Harbor high school’s homecoming and senior game.

The JV squad played well. They have continued to show growth late in the season. Amelia Reiter is reveling in her new-found ability to hit from the right side. Eighth grader Bella Springer is really learning to read the ball well, and her increasing defensive intelligence and court movement has allowed her to earn more playing time.

Libero Abby Kotula was moved into the first server position, where her concentration and consistency is a terrific asset to the team. The Whalers took the first two sets, 25-19 and 25-17, but the Island girls bounced back to win the third 25-15.

At the varsity level the Whalers are second in the league, and have lost only to Stony Brook. That being said, the middle of League VIII is quite competitive, and a win over our neighbors was within our reach if all went well. I made a lineup change to put our upperclass girls in the positions where they would handle the ball most often. Phoebe Starzee moved from her favored right side/alternate setter position to outside hitter, a spot she had filled ably while Nichole Hand was out with a sprained ankle. Jane Richards moved to the right side where her blocking abilities can help the team.

The match against Pierson had a feeling of deja vu. Both teams played some excellent volleyball, with some extended rallies. As we entered the gym, they were still sweeping up confetti from their homecoming pep rally. Signs adorned the gym, and a large crowd was present. The Whalers top server immediately set us on our heels, jumping out to a 6-0 lead.

But a Jane Richards block, followed by Sarah Lewis’s rocket serves allowed us to quickly bounce back to a 7-7 tie. They fought back to a 16-10 lead, but Phoebe Starzee’s consistent serve and Nichole Hand’s five kills in the first set alone put Pierson in a tough spot, and we took the first set 25-20.

One of the challenges of having a younger team is maintaining consistency. Pierson has a couple of excellent blockers who began to dominate the net. Lewis’s tricky dumps got blocked, and even hard-hitting Hand had trouble navigating around the tall players. Blocks don’t necessarily contribute that many points to a game, but they are a huge psychological boost.

Despite Lyng Coyne’s excellent defensive scrambles and a couple of blocks and tricky tips by Isabelle Topliff, Pierson dominated the court. Frustrated, the Blue and Gray dropped the next two sets with lackluster scores of 25-13, 25-13.

The fourth set, I turned the game over to the players. I have given them the tools, the most effective lineup we have, and they needed to find the will to win. They responded by dramatically increasing their focus and energy. Sarah Lewis, senior captain and setter, began making some excellent offensive decisions, spreading the ball around to hitters. Nichole Hand got hot again, using alternative tips and hits to score despite the continued good blocking.

Amelia Clark had a break-out game. Tall and a developing blocker, she is working hard on her hitting form. A couple of overpasses by the Whaler defense set the ball up nicely, and she hit with authority, scoring a season-high four kills. Caitlin Binder, our libero and defensive specialist, calmly dug up hard hits, and sprinted to pick up tips, extending rallies. Despite continuing knee pain, Starzee anchored the effort with rock steady serving.

In a down-to-the wire effort by both teams, Pierson squeaked out a 27-25 win to take the match.

As nice as it would have been to take the match from them, I was very heartened by the excellent turn-around effort. I feel that the saying “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson” will be a good rallying point for us for the remainder of the season. We showed that when Shelter Island volleyball focuses and depends on one another, we can compete with anyone. With just days left in the season, we will continue to make the best of our time together in the gym.

Friday, October 20 is varsity’s final league match of the season. We will celebrate our three seniors, and play our “Dig Pink” match. Dig Pink is an event that raises funds and awareness in the fight against breast cancer. The JV plays at 4:30 p.m., with the varsity following at 6:15.

Please come, support the fight and honor our seniors.