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Sunset on an ‘odd and wonderful’ season: Volleyball team posts best record since 2015

Shelter Island Volleyball, spring 2021, had a season like no other.

We started practice on Monday, March 1, over six months later than the usual fall start. The varsity squad finished their fast and furious season on Friday, April 16.

During that time we often played or practiced six days a week. Every Monday, all players and coaches were tested for COVID. Each time we entered the gym temperatures were taken and self-certification health forms signed. Masks were worn and physical contact discouraged.

But it was a small price to pay for the chance to play and have fun.

We started with 12 varsity players, but season-ending injuries in throughout the season reduced the number of athletes available to compete in the last four matches to nine. However, those setbacks only confirmed the versatility and depth of character of these young women.

The final three matches of the season were played in just two days.

Our senior game was against league-leading Mattituck on April 15. It was also our “Dig Pink” celebration, the long-standing volleyball celebration of breast cancer awareness. The gym was decorated with posters of the team, and along with the breast cancer awareness talk, we had a chance to honor our four seniors.

Emma Martinez had a short final season. Unfortunately, she had a season-ending injury on the fourth day of practice, depriving us of her tough jump serve and strong hits. Luckily, she was able to help at practice in the late season. Grace Olinkiewicz likewise spent much of her time in injured reserve, but was able to bring her always positive attitude and blocking to our first two matches.

Lydia Shepherd was on the injured list for a week as well, but spent most of her time as a right side hitter and back up setter. She developed her serve into a reliable weapon, while putting up balls for Dayla Reyes to hit in an awesome setter-to-setter connection.

Jane Richards is our captain, and one of the most intensely invested volleyball players I have ever coached. She analyzes game tapes, works the hardest of any athlete in the gym, sets up and takes down nets, and constantly encourages and inspires everyone around her.

In our final home match Richards was on fire. She and Sage Foster, the Tuckers outstanding hitter, battled back and forth. Foster often had to hit the ball two or three times as our tenacious defense popped up ball after ball. She changed tactics, tipping the ball to a tough spot on the court, but Richards quickly adjusted, thwarting her efforts. Richards also hit the ball hard from both the front and back rows. It was a terrific final home performance for the four-year varsity player.

Mattituck won the match 25-17, 25-18, 25-16, but their coach was quite complimentary at the Islander effort and team chemistry.

The next day the team boarded an early bus to head to Port Jefferson. The Royals had a mid-season COVID quarantine, so we rescheduled the missed match, turning our final day into a double header. With no tournaments allowed this season, we looked at this as our tournament experience: two full matches back-to-back with the potential of playing 10 sets. That’s a lot of playing in a short period of time, especially with just nine players.

We have worked throughout the season to build confidence in all players and to allow them to step into any position. This was essential when we lost outside hitter and defensive dynamo Valeria Reyes to injury for the last four games of the season.

It turned out to be a tremendously competitive afternoon and evening. Port Jeff has a strong block, and a never-say-die defensive attitude. The rallies were long, with every player hustling and working hard.

Lily Page served very well, and also made several nice digs on defense, causing Angelina Rice to call out “Take my job, Lily!” Port Jeff proved to have an impressive late set kick, making strong comebacks in nearly every game. We beat them in the first set 25-23, lost the second 25-20, then hit a wall in the third losing 25-10.

But steady work by Franny Regan helped bolster the team, and we won 25-20 to take the match to the fifth and deciding set. A Port Jeff tough server didn’t allow us to get on an offensive roll, and the Royals took the match win with a 25-16 score.

And that was just the first half of the double header.

The team seemed tired, but a 15-minute water and food break did wonders, and we hit the court for the second match. Once again long rallies were de rigueur. Izzy Fonseca served a couple of aces and dug in on defense. However, we lost the first two sets, and facing the possibility of a sweep, decided to mix things up.

Bella Springer normally plays in the middle, where her blocking skills are essential. However, she’s always up for a challenge, so we moved her to the outside hitter position. With Springer’s power in the front row, and Regan holding down the back row, the team did very well, and we won the next set.

The final set of the season was a great back-and-forth battle. Myla Dougherty served aces, and earned multiple kills. Reyes continued her indefatigable running of the offense, while Rice’s diving saves on defensive inspired the team.

With every athlete seeing action on the court during the set, it was an all-team effort, and when the last point was scored by Port Jeff to win in “overtime” 26-24, there was nothing but pride in the very long and well played day.

This weird COVID season was a success by any measure. By the end of the season, this terrific group had defeated five of the seven teams in the league at least once; beaten rival Pierson High School for the first time in five years; posted the best record since 2015; and secured the Suffolk County Class D championship. All this while constantly improving, being supportive to every person on the team, and having fun.

This team proved that the extraordinary effort to make this season possible was worth it. They proved that belief in one another will carry us through difficult times. They proved, once again, that coaching is a privilege and that sports are a true analogy for life.

Congratulations and many thanks to these athletes. I hope you will remember this odd and wonderful season with fondness while always striving to play well, have fun and work hard.