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Islanders take Class D Suffolk County volleyball crown: Move on to State regional semis

It takes a full team effort to win a championship, and each player is counted on to step up to help secure a victory. That team spirit and willingness to play the role needed by the team was on full display as the Islanders faced the Ross School in the Class D Suffolk County finals on November 7.

We have said all season that Shelter Island and the Ross School are very closely matched. Ross had beaten us both times that we had faced them in league play. We needed to bring our best game and strategy to beat them.

It has been over two weeks since our last live competition, so in our training sessions we have focused on the skills that would help us beat the Ravens. We worked on defending against tips and dumps, focused on serving smart, and practiced serve receive against “Sasha,” the high-speed serving machine.

While every member of the team contributed to the game, two juniors shone in the county spotlight. Mackenzie Speece had a breakout game. She has been working hard on her serving this season, and her jump serve is now a reliable weapon. In the first set she served 10 straight, including 2 aces to put the game out of reach.

Sophie Clark came prepared to win. Her taped right hand, elbow pads, and permanently bruised knees are a testament to her all-out effort. She was the top hitter on the team, scoring 10 kills. She also served extremely well.

Behind Speece’s error-free serves, Mary Gennari’s calm heads-up plays on both defense and offense and Clark’s focus, the Islanders sprinted out to a 25-15 win in the first set. Excited to have taken a set, the team once again jumped out to a 14-4 lead.

Alex Burns and Maddie Springer stared down the opposition as we were serving, but Ross got some traction, cutting our lead to 16-12 before Margaret Schultheis came to the line and served an ace, then strung together 2 more points. But that ability for the Ravens to make multi-point runs was telling. We won 25-19, but the match was far from over.

With back-to-back sets under their belt the Islanders were confident, perhaps overconfident, and got a bit complacent. Ross had adjusted to their adapted line-up and had lost the early nerves. The Ross fans were loud, and the Raven mascot flapped around the sidelines, pumping up the team.

Shelter Island and Ross traded missed serves at the start, but then Kaitlyn Gulluscio served 7 points in a row to get the Islanders out to a 11-5 lead. Kat Austin had a great block to put us up 16-10. However, Ross didn’t lie down.

Some smart plays by the Ravens and some mistakes by the Islanders allowed Ross’s top server to score 7 in a row to take the third set 25-21.

The fourth set started slowly. For the first half of the set, the teams exchanged points, with Ross creeping out to a lead. Harper Condgon, our libero, is counted on for her calm demeanor on the court and her ability to dig up hard hits.

She also has a nice serve and scored 5 points in a row, forcing a time-out from the Ravens. Andrea Napoles made her mark defensively this match, both at the net with blocking and in the back row where her quick feet got her to a couple of short serves that would have fallen for points if she hadn’t made the saves. It was all tied up at 20-20, when Ross scored a quick 4 points.

With the game on the line, Gulluscio once again was counted on for her rock steady serving. We managed a mini-momentum shift, but Ross took the set 25-23, setting up the final showdown.

The tiebreaker in volleyball is now 15 points. It’s important to start strong, because there isn’t much time for a comeback. Both teams pushed hard at the start and it was close until the score stood at 5-4. At that point Clark, supported by teammates’ heads-up plays, served 7 points in a row, including 4 aces.

At 12-4 the Islanders continued to contain their excitement and maintain their focus. Springer killed an overpass to bring us to the cusp of victory, 14-6. After a strong Napoles serve, nice defense by Burns, Clark put down a kill for the match win.

As the ref signaled the final point and end of the game, teammates rushed the court. The game ball and County plaque were presented to captains Alex Burns and Mary Gennari, and family and friends flooded down from the bleachers to get a photo of the beaming group.

This group has improved so much this season. I’m thrilled for them to have their determination and will to win reflected in this victory.

Our next challenge is the New York State regional semi-finals at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 9 (after the Reporter’s press deadline). We will be taking a long bus ride up the Hudson to Bard College to face the Mount Academy, the Class D defending state champs.

It’s a formidable challenge, but I know that this group of athletes will put their best foot forward, have fun singing on the bus and, no matter what, make memories that will last a lifetime.

We are the champions. Standing, from left, juniors Kaitlyn Gulluscio, Mackenzie Speece, Kat Austin, Sophie Clark, and Harpur Congdon. Kneeling from left, seniors Alex Burns, Madison Springer, Margaret Schultheis, Mary Gennari, and Andrea Napoles. (Courtesy photo)