KILLINGWORTH — In this most unlikely of volleyball seasons, Haddam-Killingworth returned to power in the Shoreline Conference.
But the run-up was never easy for the Cougars.
They worried, like most, about the pandemic and whether a shorter regular season (10 matches instead of the usual 20) could be played without interruption. They began the preseason like lots of teams — working on their game outdoors (try digging out a ball on a tennis court).
Once cleared for indoor practice, but with the high school’s field house off limits because of a major renovation, the Cougars needed a court to play on. They got one when the district’s leaders whipped up a plan that carved out practice time for them inside H-K Middle School.
It was there on Friday night, their home away from home, that H-K put the finishing touches on a crazy, undefeated season by defeating Hale-Ray 25-16, 25-14 and 25-12 for the second Shoreline championship in coach Robin Callender’s five years as head of the program.
“We really had to adapt quickly since the start of the season,” H-K senior Meghan Doxsee said. “When we started with practice outside on the tennis courts, we couldn’t really pass the ball at all. Luckily we were able to get inside and we’re grateful for our athletic director and principal working with the superintendent, who worked with the middle school to get us to practice here.”
H-K played 11 of its 13 matches at the home of their opponent. The Cougars defeated Coginchaug in the tournament semifinals at the middle school on Wednesday before avenging a five-set loss to Hale-Ray in last year’s Shoreline semifinals.
“It was a great end to the season, and to have a home game,” Doxsee said. “We just had to adapt. And we kept in mind how lucky we were to have this match here.”
The Cougars, who lost just five sets this season, overcame the Noises behind Doxsee’s overall play, the outside hitting of juniors Jess Timothy and Audrey Snyder, and senior Caitlyn Esposito’s presence in the middle. Timothy, Snyder and Doxsee were first team all-conference players and Snyder was a second-team selection.
“We really have two strong outside hitters with Jess and Audrey,” Esposito said. “They really hold our team together. It’s easy for us when they’re on their game because they are amazing.”
In each set, H-K built double-digit leads early and maintained them without becoming overconfident.
“We were nervous from the beginning that we weren’t going to have a season,” Callender said, “and we took it one day at a time, especially our six seniors. We had extra obstacles in our way, but the girls always brought a positive attitude. Our first goal was an undefeated regular season, our second goal was the Shoreline championship.”
Leading up to the final, Callender made it a point to remind her players about the 2019 tournament encounter against Hale-Ray. The Cougars won the first two sets in their semifinal match, only to see the Noises storm back for a five-set win and a spot in the final.
“We had a meeting before (Friday), and I just said we have to play strong and try to win in three, because Hale-Ray is such an incredible team that they can come back. So the girls really worked hard the last few practices, I switched up the lineup a little and they jelled right away, and they probably ended up playing one of their best games ever.”
Hale-Ray, which finished 9-3, first met H-K in early October, with the Cougars winning in four sets. After a sweep of Old Lyme and a five-set loss to 2019 Shoreline champion Valley Regional, the Noises ripped off six straight wins, the last two against rival East Hampton, en route to the final.
“We got better, our program got stronger and we made adjustments that allowed us to grow,” said coach Karen Sweet, a former Hale-Ray player who assisted Suzy Miner for five seasons before taking over as head coach this fall. “Unfortunately, we had some injuries that adjusted our lineup a little bit, and we weren’t as strong as we would have liked to have been.”
Hale-Ray was missing its best blocker and hitter, senior Jessica Stricker, due to injury, and junior Ashley Malone was extremely limited because of an ankle injury. Senior Jackie Parker and sophomore Brooke Praskievicz, both All-Shoreline first teamers, were the best players on the floor for Hale-Ray, but Sweet was short on experienced players to surround them with.
“We did our best with what we had, but I’m really proud with how hard my players played despite that adversity,” Sweet said. “It’s part of sports, part of life, and as a coach you continue to teach those lessons. H-K has always been a strong program. They have very skilled players. We just didn’t have the answers.”
The tournament was played without Valley and Morgan after each school went to online learning earlier this month and canceled sports out of caution because of the coronavirus. Valley was 9-1, pushed H-K to a fifth set earlier in the season and had the Shoreline Player of the Year in Ava Boyles.
“Valley was another incredible team. My heart goes out to them, especially their seniors,” Callender said. “Even our seniors, they knew the season could end tomorrow and we might not have a chance to get to the Shoreline championship. I’m devastated for Valley. Like us, they were another tight-knit group.”