STRATFORD — Another year means another SWC girls’ volleyball championship for Joel Barlow, which claimed its eighth consecutive title with a 3-2 victory over Masuk on Saturday at Bunnell High School.
After losing six seniors from last year’s championship team and an uncharacteristic 1-2 start, the inexperienced Barlow team proved that it was up for the challenge.
“I think it hit me this year,” Barlow coach Carol Asplund said. “It is a lot harder to stay on top than it is to get to the top and that showed. These girls had to play with a lot of courage and grace. The pressure was on them because everybody is out to get us all year long. We knew we were young and inexperienced, they worked really hard with three hour practices every day. We have been here before, we knew what to do. We just had to stay composed and stay together.”
Barlow was led by junior Isabel Llach, who totaled 25 kills and 11 digs while senior Kayleigh Emanuelson contributed 26 assists, seven digs, three kills and two aces to her team’s effort and was named the SWC Tournament MVP.
“(Emanuelson) has been on varsity since she was a freshman,” Asplund said. “She was a serving specialist for us. She has struggled a little bit this year because she has done every role for us. She hits, sets, jump serves and we pull her back on serve receive sometimes. In the middle of the game I told her ‘Kayleigh, go set now, nope now you’re going to go hit and now you’re going to do this.’ Whatever was breaking down, we kind of just threw her into that situation to help us out.”
Barlow and Masuk met twice in the regular season, with Masuk winning the first match 3-1.
“We just started realizing that we had to execute,” Emanuelson said. “We had to play our game in order to win and we pushed really hard and we cared a lot. We really played together.”
The second time the two met, Barlow won 3-0 in what would be the first of an 11-game win streak and a turning point in the young season.
Barlow took the first two sets 25-20 and 25-23 and looked as if it were going to come away with an easy victory, but a resilient Masuk team battled back.
The two teams matched each other point for point for most of the third set, trading points from a 14-14 score to 21-21 before Masuk took four straight to win 25-21.
In the fourth set Barlow jumped ahead to an early 9-1 lead, and eventually pushed the lead to 20-9.
Just five points away from defeat, Masuk rallied for a 17-4 run to come back and win the set 26-24, evening the match at 2-2.
“We know once we are down that we can come back,” Masuk coach Carol Ortiz said. “The fact that they were able to execute and have fun there for those few points, that is all that we needed to do. We proved to ourselves over and over again that we are that team to beat.”
With the final set knotted up at 4-4, Katie Gjelaj played the hero as Barlow scored 10 straight points on her serve to go ahead 14-4.
Barlow put its final exclamation mark on the match on a spike by Llach for the 15-5 victory.
“We are feeling amazing right now,” Emanuelson said. “We’ve been working for this for a really long time, we’ve been working at practice and getting things done. We were really excited for today.”
The season is not over for either team, as both are set to compete in the upcoming state tournament.
“We have to get through this one,” Ortiz said. “It is a big bruise right now, but we’re going back to practice, going back at it so we need to mentally put it to the side for Brookfield in the first round.”