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Volleyball team takes Suffolk County title

Playing volleyball in November is like playing basketball in March or baseball in October. It means you’ve earned your way into the postseason and playoffs are here.

Our opponent on Nov. 3 for the Suffolk County/Section XI championship was the Ross School, a private school in East Hampton. Several students from Shelter Island have attended in recent years, and Allie Brush is in the current senior class. Allie switched to Ross her sophomore year, after playing Shelter Island volleyball for three years. We regret being on the receiving end of her fierce serves.

This season Ross and Shelter Island went 1-1 against one another, each winning a very closely contested match. With the advantage of knowing our opponent, we focused on improving our own skills and taking advantage of any weak spots. There was nothing taken for granted headed into this game.

The match was held at the neutral site of Southampton High School. It was an entire team effort with great play on the court and encouragement and guidance emanating from the bench. Madigan Teodoru, Margaret Schultheis, and Andrea Napoles unselfishly provided support throughout the contest.

Valeria Reyes, who was sidelined with a knee injury all season, was especially helpful. An excellent player herself, she knows the game very well, and as substituting players came on and off the court, she gave specific advice and encouragement. During timeouts and between sets she pushed players to do their best or to see nuances that aren’t always evident while you’re on the court.

Madison Springer, a primary setter on the JV team, was tapped to start in the first set on the right side. Dayla Reyes immediately got her involved in the action, signaling that everyone was there to play, and not just be a placeholder. Ross quickly got its trademark tough serves rolling and an 8-point slide saw us down 22-10. Ariana Carter got a kill to get us back into the game and Mary Gennari’s serving and an amazing save on defense allowed us to gain some momentum as we charged back. Ross took the first set 25-17.

In each of the league matches whoever won the first set went on to lose the match, so we settled in to focus on winning the next set. Olivia Overstreet adapted well to the tough serves, and Franny Regan continued her smart hitting, nailing a kill to the deep setter’s corner. We quickly got out to a 12-2 lead, but Ross would not let up. Another serving run allowed them to notch 6 unanswered points, pulling within 2 at 21-19. Urging one another to “just get 2 points” the Islanders pushed hard and evened the match at one set apiece, 25-21.

The fans in the stands continued their positive support as the third set started. We quickly scored several points on hits, with Dayla Reyes, Angie Rice, Franny Regan and Lily Page each scoring kills and getting us out to an 8-3 lead. But Ross tenaciously fought back, evening it at 12-12. Answering back, Page and Reyes kept hitting. Mary Gennari surprised everyone with a beautiful bump set to Myla Dougherty who crushed the ball for an emphatic 22-19 lead. A few points later, the set was ours, 25-20.

The fourth set started with some excellent hitting from the Islanders, but soon there was a lack of focus and drop in energy on the floor. Behind 7-9, I called a timeout, and the team quickly got back on track. Reyes’s power and pin-point accuracy on her serves frustrated the Ravens, while Gennari continued her all-round terrific performance with help sets and even notching a kill. It was our turn to go on a run, piling up 6 points. Jumping out to a 21-13 lead, the team could smell the victory, and a Regan kill and aces in two of Rice’s last three serves propelled us to the 25-14 victory.

As the last ball fell, the team on the court and the bench flew together in an ecstatic group hug. School Athletic Director Todd Gullusico presented the team with the County Championship plaque and all faces shone with joy — and some with happy tears — as the wood and bronze symbol of their season-long effort was held high in triumph.

Winning the county championship takes a focused and prolonged effort. While we have a long history of county volleyball titles, each season takes a fresh commitment to play well against always bigger teams, give up other weekend plans to attend tournaments, work around unexpected illness or injury, and to balance academic and athletic duties.

The league is always shifting, with school rankings rising and falling as talented athletes come and go. It is never “just another” line on a banner. The experience of a playoff victory is wonderful, and will remain a memory for these athletes for the rest of their playing days. For now, the team is back in the gym with their eyes on the southeastern New York Regional championship. A win there would propel us to the State Final Four.

Our opponent will be tough and talented, but as many teams have discovered, the Islanders will not be intimidated. As legendary coach John Wooden said, we respect all opponents but fear none.

We hope to see you on Thursday, Nov. 11, at 1 p.m. at the Longwood High School. Come cheer on the team and support our athletes’ dream of going to States.