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A great season, greater memories: Shelter Island volleyball team falls short of state finals

“How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

That quote, attributed to Winnie the Pooh, sums up how I feel at the end of a volleyball season.

What a great season it has been. The Shelter Island School volleyball team played with resilience and heart during the regular season, winning more than double the number of matches of the 2022 squad in the regular season to qualify outright for the Suffolk County Class D championship.

After a long three-week break as the larger schools finished their playoff brackets, the Islanders had a chance to face the Tuxedo Tornados of George F. Baker High School in the New York State Class D regional finals on November 11.

The night before, the team had a pasta dinner at St Mary’s Church, gathering around the big screen TV to watch the Tornados in the regional semi-final. We had a strategy to stop their big hitter and a plan to work around their strong defense.

Injuries to Senor Mackenzie Speece caused us to shift the lineup we had crafted over the season, and Susie Kane, another senior, also had to miss the match, but she had an excellent reason: she was running in the State Cross Country finals that same morning.

With just seven varsity players available, four JV players also made the trip to bolster our numbers. Elliot Schack has been faithfully attending practices throughout the post-season. Lauren Gibbs, Quinn Sobejana and Mae Brigham also were on standby in case of injury or other opportunity. All gained valuable experience, which will serve them well as they anticipate next season playing at the varsity level.

On the way to the match, Jennifer Gulluscio (mother of one athlete, teacher to others and married to the athletic director) presented us with gift bags. Volleyball bracelets, stickers and a granola bar were a sweet reminder that the community was pulling for us.

The match was held at Port Jefferson. As we entered the gym, we spied both family members and teachers in the stands. Science teachers Dan Williams and Sam Cavanaugh, along with Social Studies teacher Sean Brennan made the trip to Port Jefferson to cheer on their students.

During the first set the Islanders were tentative. With the high stakes outcome of going to States on their minds, nerves were evident. During the second set we started playing the way we are able, but it wasn’t until the third set that the team I know we can be really made an appearance.

Sophie Clark was all in, her trademark heart and hustle buoying the energy on the court while providing error-free serving. Kaitlyn Gulluscio confessed to being nervous, but she still swung hard whenever she got a set. Kat Austin had the important assignment of shutting down Tuxedo’s biggest hitter. She did a great job with her “block party,” forcing Tuxedo to modify their attack.

Dariana Duran Alvarado whose skill from the service line has really improved this season, was a top server. Mandy Marcello did a nice job on serve receive and defense, along with a nice block. Johanna Kaasik’s positive attitude steadied the squad, and she worked hard to set up our hitters, while also serving well.

Harper Congdon’s versatility shone as she seamlessly switched from playing middle to left side on defense depending on the rotation and situation. Her calm demeanor is an essential foundation of our back court.

Despite flashes of brilliance, the Islanders never really got into their groove and the Tornados advanced 3-0 to the State Final Four.

In our customary post-match circle, there was more than one athlete with moist eyes. We have been in the gym together for nearly three months, often six days a week. Seniors had just played their last game in an Islander uniform, and our dream of competing at States had come to an end. But playing sports is much more than wins and losses. The assembled team reflected on what they would remember most about the season. Answers ranged from individual pride of increased skills to feelings of gratitude to be able to build a stronger bond with their team and classmates.

I will miss my time with these young women. I appreciate the season-long leadership of captains Sophie Clark and Kaitlyn Gullusico and the positive encouragement as the team came together on the court after points, or after a practice. Ironically, I think I’ll even miss bus rides: Mock arguments about who saw a yellow car first; conversations about what music the team would like to listen to; who would get to dress as which Barbie for Anything Goes; or discussions about where to eat after the match.

On the final ferry ride back to the Island, I asked each team member what they would be doing next. The talented and diverse group nearly all started a new season on Monday — basketball, winter track or cheer (and often two of the three) were listed, along with student council and the school play. Our Shelter Island student-athletes are an amazing bunch of young adults.

As I told them, and anyone else who is in earshot, I am always proud to be their coach. Great season Islanders, thanks for the memories.