It comes every year, but I’m never quite ready for the end of volleyball season.
No more practices, bus rides or inside jokes with some of the best teenagers in town. That being said, I am enormously proud of this group of athletes that won their way all the way to the Regional finals, one step from going to the State final four.
The lead-up to the final match of the year for the Shelter Island volleyball team was great fun, with the lingering euphoria of bringing home the Class D County title. The school featured the photo of the win on their website. Teachers, alums and many others, some with daughters who have come through the program, stopped me in town to congratulate the team, knowing what a joy it was to reach this level.
Our final practice featured Xs and Os along with fun team-building activities. Each athlete shared an inspirational quote. The cheerleaders on the team broke into a spontaneous cheer, clapping and stomping out a fun rhythm. At the end of practice, we also built a pyramid. Great fun, with the not too subtle message that every single teammate is needed and we all hold one another up.
Our opponent in the New York Southeastern Regional championship was The Mount Academy, based in Esopus, N.Y. up along the Hudson. They are a tall and talented team who dominated many of the teams they faced this season. The Shelter Island team had a chance to view a live stream of the Section 9 finals when the Eagles beat the Tuxedo team 25-5, 25-4 and 25-9.
We knew we had our work cut out for us.
We arrived at Longwood High School on Nov.11 with enough time to see most of the Division I boys Long Island Championship match. Smithtown West and Massapequa were swinging hard and hustling on defense. It was great to feel the intense energy in the gym, which had hundreds of fans present.
As the boys match ended, we started to see some familiar faces. The spectator fan bus arrived, which included several of the JV players and our stalwart high school boys fans. It was great to see the friendly faces in the large gym. There were even some 4th grade girls in the crowd, watching the fun and dreaming of their turn on center court.
One of the reasons I love volleyball is the community that forms around the game. Following us onto the court were the well wishes of coaches throughout Suffolk County who emailed, texted or were there in person to cheer us on. It was uplifting to see coaches from AA all the way to D in the crowd. Ana Jacobs of Ross was present to lend her support to the Islander effort.
After introductions and the singing of the National Anthem, the teams took the court. Our game plan was in place: serve hard, block tough and play smart offense. Mount has several talented hitters, so we focused on shoring up our blocking to give our defenders a better chance of digging up the Eagles attack.
We changed the rotation slightly, which allowed Myla Dougherty to bring her blocking acumen against their tallest hitter. We moved from just one middle blocker to always putting up two to reduce the amount of court available to hit. On a couple of occasions, we actually had a triple block up-— shades of college level ball!
I was proud of the decisions and adjustments that the team made on the fly. They also continually encouraged one another, even as the Eagles pulled ahead.
The seniors on the team provided calm leadership. Angelina Rice, Ariana Carter, Myla Dougherty, Dayla Reyes, Franny Regan, Lily Page, and Olivia Overstreet played their last game in a Shelter Island uniform with poise. Valeria Reyes, who has been sidelined with a knee injury all year, continued to act as a peer coach, encouraging each player and providing input.
The juniors got less playing time but invaluable experience in a big-time match. Alex Burns had to miss the match due to health reasons. As leaders on the court next year, Andrea Napoles, Madigan Teodoru, Madison Springer, Margaret Schultheis, and Mary Gennari will have some great memories.
The Mount Academy won the match 25-12, 25-11 and 25-9. I expect they will do very well at Glens Falls in the state tournament, and we wish them well.
Following the presentation of the plaques, the team gathered in our traditional post-game circle in a relatively quiet corner of the gym. Together we reflected on the season. For a team that has been together through literally blood, sweat and tears, there was a feeling of gratitude for the time we have spent together, tinged with the sadness that comes from knowing that things will never be the same.
For years the Shelter Island volleyball mantra has been to play well, have fun and work hard. This year we added a new post-game cheer. It was “I love you on 3. 1-2-3 — I love you!”
There will never again be a team like the Fall 2021 volleyball squad. Thank you for your laughter and wisdom, dedication and hard work. You have inspired yet another group of younger athletes, and your legacy will live on.