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A volleyball season of pride and progress closes

Shelter Island varsity volleyball has developed a tradition of ending the final day of the season by standing in a circle, reflecting on the highlights of the year. I always tell the team that I’m so proud to be their coach, and this season, despite our lopsided won-loss record, it was no different.

This year ended October 24 at Mount Sinai High School after losing our final match of the season to Port Jefferson. The first time we met Port Jeff this season we had almost identical scores: losing in three sets 10-25, 21-25, 23-25. But that first time I came away a little discouraged. The team had been ahead in all three sets, and let the Royals come back from 5, 11 and 9-point deficits.

This time it was the other way around, with the Island mounting terrific comebacks in the last two sets: 8-20 became 21-25; a 10-19 deficit became 23-25, a so-close game that Port Jeff was lucky to win. I was impressed at the resiliency this team has developed, keeping their heads high, knowing that “progress, not perfection” is what we seek.

It was doubly impressive that we did so well without our starting setter, Lyng Coyne, sidelined with a sprained ankle. Maria Carbajal has played in the back-up setter position all season, stepping in as needed while serving a blue streak and playing excellent defense. Amelia Reiter is tall, and most coaches would peg her as a hitter.

Two years ago she was noticed by then JV Coach Jim Theinert as a player with good hands, and he gave her the nod to be a setter. With Coyne out, we used the Carbajal-Reiter combination to run our offense.

It took time adjusting to the new serve receive patterns, the rowdy pro-Royals crowd and slightly different style of set, but Nichole Hand hit the higher sets well, getting five kills on the night. Jane Richards served well, earning four aces, and her defense was great.

Audrey Wood blocked well in the middle, forcing the Royals to hit over her and out. Lauren Gurney swung at sets and leaped high for blocks. Isabelle Topliff, who missed most of the season due to illness, brought her high energy and positive attitude in the third set, sparking the team. Amelia Clark has really improved her hitting late in the season, and her steady serves and some nice defense helped bring us back.

Libero Ella Mysliborski was on the court nearly non-stop, racking up two aces. Defense specialist Abby Kotula’s popped-up tough serves and led the comeback in the last two sets with steady nerves and serves.

After the match, there were tears. Seniors Hand and Mysliborski were justifiably emotional, realizing their last volleyball matches in a Shelter Island jersey were now done. But as we went around the sweaty circle, awkwardly trying to put into words what the season meant to one another, the tears turned to smiles. There’s no doubt the sense of identity for this group of girls extends far beyond personalized water bottles and matching sweatshirts.

This year we didn’t win as much as we wanted, but taking a page from the book of Olympic gold medalist and current USA Women’s Volleyball team head coach Karch Kiraly, we asked three important questions after each match. What went well? What needs work? What did we learn?

There’s no doubt we got stronger throughout the season, working hard to make the positives even more fruitful. I learned this was a resilient group, willing to look hard at themselves and improve.

Coach Laura Mayo has done a great job bringing along the 13 athletes on the JV team, developing skills while having fun. The joyful noise during practices and games definitely showed they were having fun.

The team ended the season with an 8-7 record, the best showing in several years. They beat six of the teams in the league at least once, while losing matches to only Mattituck and Babylon.

Port Jeff’s JV is strong. The match on October 24 was some of the best volleyball we’ve played all year. There were long volleys, exciting saves and great serving.

The sports adage “the score did not reflect the intensity or equality of play between the teams” was never truer in the 25-19, 25-10, 25-10 loss.

Dayla Reyes has been the setter for the team for the entire season. During a recent match, she noticed a different style of setting, so despite a sore wrist she incorporated a wrist-flick style to her repertoire. Valeria Reyes has been playing right side — as a lefty, this is her natural strong side — but we discovered she’s even more valuable on the left side. She can still get to balls as a back-up setter, but gets more swings.

Bella Springer has lots of power, which she showcased in during the first set. Her mechanics are much better and she’s become a great coach from the sidelines, calling out “your base is in front” when a teammate hesitated.

The defense in the back and forth rallies was terrific. Franny Regan dove and her one-armed save flew to deep corner for a point. Allie Brush is unflappable, and hustled to the bleachers to save a ball, calmly returning to the court to continue the play seemingly unaffected by the loud cheers from the stands. Angelina Corbett-Rice patrolled the back line, making dig after dig, fearless and calm.

Serving is a huge weapon in volleyball. In practice we serve every day, often asking the players to track how many serves were good out of 10. This year we had a tremendous improvement in this area, with 22 of 25 players recording 10/10 in serving practice at least once during the season. Myla Dougherty, who never played volleyball before this season, started at 0/10 and slowly moved her way up, scoring 10/10 this past week.

This growth in confidence and pride in achievements is tangible evidence of why sports are so important.

Isabella Fonseca is another strong-armed athlete who had a blazing hit in the third set. Kathy Ramos tracked down a hard Royals hit, making a great dig. Lily Page made points with her serve, while Grace Olinkiewicz had a nice kill, bringing a loud cheer from the bench and putting a heart-warming smile on her face.

Movement is another skill which has come a long way this year. During serve receive, the players feet are always moving. Lydia Shepherd had a nice tip on the right side of the court, then raced to the left side to get into position in time to block a Royals hit. Daria Kolmogorova intently tracks down balls, setting them to teammates.

Watching the squad during that last match, Coach Laura Mayo and I were amazed at how far the team has come. The season started with only three returning players to the JV squad, challenged to understand the complexities of the high school game. Now the team is well versed in skills, positioning and team tactics.

We’ll gather one last time for a team dinner before the athletes turn in their kneepads.

But as the year rolls on and “our girls” transition into basketball players, cheerleaders, actors and ordinary students, there’s one thing that remains the same: We are, yet again, so proud to be the coaches of Shelter Island volleyball.