SHELTON >> Five years ago, LeAnne Bianchine was asked to switch from coaching the Shelton softball team to take over a Gaels’ boys’ volleyball program that, in her own words, had been “a little bit down in the dumps.”
She said no at first, but the following year she was asked again. This time she accepted.
“I’m very happy that I did,” she said on Friday, shortly after guiding Shelton to its first Southern Connecticut Conference championship since 2008.
The Gaels dominated the first two games, ran into a hiccup in the third after a spirited Xavier comeback, but then scored the final five points of the fourth game to clinch a 25-16, 25-15, 21-25, 25-20 victory at Shelton High. It’s the Gaels’ fifth SCC title.
“To bring them back up where they belong is a good feeling,” Bianchine said. “I’ve had a lot of assistants, they’ve all been part of this. The boys work hard in the offseason … that unity, especially this group of seniors, is gonna be hard for me to let go, I can tell you that right now. They’re fighters. I’m just very proud to be their coach, proud to be a part of this, and really excited.”
Senior captain Erik Kocur had 17 kills and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.
“It was a work in progress these past four years with this team,” said Kocur. “We built it up, we knew we had great expectations for senior year. We expected to win SCCs this year.”
And that they did, going 8-0 in league play and now improving to 18-2 overall. The Gaels will begin state tournament play on Monday at 6 p.m., when they host Greenwich.
Xavier (11-10) will play at East Hartford on Monday.
Shelton never trailed in the first game and only had a few one-point deficits in the second. Then, with the title within reach, the Gaels got a little complacent and dropped the third game.
“We felt like the title was too close,” Kocur admitted. “We gave up the serves. We thought we had it in the bag, a couple of points away. We kind of let it slip, but we built it back up in the fourth game. We knew we were the better team.”
Added Bianchine: “We got a little lazy, a little lax. We had two games under our belt, it wasn’t much of a battle. The passing wasn’t as good.”
The coach also joked that her team had “27 missed serves” in that third game. Still, Xavier deserved credit for not folding the tents.
“I didn’t like the way we were playing, mentally,” Falcon coach John Post said of his team’s play in the first two games. “We looked defeated, like the match was over. I didn’t like that. We’ve been working on keeping our composure all season. They kind of fell apart. We challenged the team, they came out and played harder. We got some good results out of it. But it was just too big a hole to climb out of it at that point.”
In the fourth game, it was 20-18 when Shelton reeled off the final five straight points.
“Game four, we came out and said, ‘No more missed serves,’” Bianchine said. “I said, ‘How much do you want it? How hungry are you? Now, it’s on you. We’ve told you everything to do, you know these guys. You know (Xavier star Andre Zumerchik) better than anybody, now we have to stop him.”
Said Post: “This was a winnable match for us. Shelton played extremely well tonight, and won this match.”
Kocur had 11 kills, Grant Fevrier added 18 kills and seven digs, Thomas Nicholas had five blocks, Michael Scarpa notched 16 digs and Rhodric McCurty doled out 38 assists.
“Playing four years, it just means a lot,” Kocur said about winning most outstanding player honors. “I don’t know how to describe it.”
For Xavier, Zumerchik had 19 kills and 14 digs, Cameron DeChalus had 10 digs and Tucker Aglio added nine.
After the match, Zumerchik was awarded the SCC’s Most Outstanding Player honor, while Bianchine was named the league’s Coach of the Year.