Victoria Tilley said that despite the Ward Melville girls’ volleyball team blanking 12 of its 13 regular-season opponents 3-0, the team has always had to battle back — and Monday was no different.
The Patriots had only lost one set the entire season and found themselves down 2-1 to another undefeated team, Smithtown East. Ward Melville wouldn’t go down without a fight though and won the fourth and decisive fifth set to secure its spot in the Suffolk County Class AA finals, 25-21, 21-25, 20-25, 25-23, 25-14.
“It’s amazing how we came back,” the senior middle hitter and blocker said, grinning from ear to ear. “We’re sometimes late starters and it comes back to us. We trail a lot with teams, but we always know how to clam down and talk to each other, and it works every single time.”
Smithtown East had contributions from Kendra Harlow (19 kills), Haley Anderson (15 kills and 12 digs), Morgan Catalanotto (15 digs) and Jackie Cuccarello (42 assists) and went on a five-point tare in the third set and opened up the fourth with another five straight points before the Patriots put themselves on the board, but Ward Melville sophomore outside hitter Ashley Fuchs was the difference maker.
With the fourth set tied 14-14, a slide across the baseline for a dig helped put her team out in front and forced Smithtown East head coach George Alamia to call time-out. From there, although the Bulls tied it at 15-15, the Patriots never trailed again.
“We were making some hitting errors which is fine, and it’s hard to adjust to some hits off the net, but we all came together,” Ward Melville junior setter Cierra Low said. “We were down at some points but we always know we can come back together. We work as a team and when we got down we get in that huddle and tell each other to relax, that it’s all good and we’ll get back there and we did. We won.”
The Patriots’ defense was a weak point throughout the match, but the team continued to bounce back.
“We talked about some things that we wanted to do defensively and didn’t do it until the fourth game, but it did finally work out,” Ward Melville head coach Charles Fernandes said. “They were very calm; there was no panicking.”
As the Patriots climbed back to win the fourth set and fans cheered across the gymnasium, Ward Melville senior Alex Stein said she knew her team had it in them to pull through once more.
The outside hitter, who finished the game with 28 kills, 10 digs, three blocks and two aces, said she knew from the start that the team had a lot of potential.
“We knew we could go far if we worked for it, so it’s nice to see that we didn’t roll over and let them win,” she said. “Every game where there’s been a challenge we’ve been able to overcome it, especially when we’re down that’s when we really focus and work together. We’ve wanted this the whole season. We’ve been working as hard as we can since preseason for this moment, and we just took it.”
Tilley finished with 14 kills and four blocks, Fuchs added eight kills and eight digs, senior libero Claire O’Hern had nine digs and junior left side hitter Lara Atalay had 14 kills and three blocks.
With the win, Ward Melville moved on to face No. 1 Connetquot in the Suffolk County Class AA championship at Suffolk County Community College’s Brentwood campus today at 8 p.m.
Stein, who is the only player on the team to have also competed with the Patriots’ 2012 county champion team, is looking forward to the matchup.
“It’s not going to be easy but we’re going to work as hard as we can,” she said. “Connetquot is a very good team and we know that their ball control is very good and they’re going to depend on us making mistakes so we’re going to work hard to eliminate the errors.”
Fernandes said that although he’s been coaching volleyball for years and made it to the county finals before, going back with these girls makes it feel like the first time.
“The girls hung together, they understood that if we executed our game plan we could be successful, and they did,” Fernandes said. “This is a very good volleyball team and if anything, our route to the finals has battle-tested us. I just can’t wait to see these kids in that room.”