As sophomores struggling through an 0-20 season in 2019, the last thing any of the current seniors on the Stamford boys volleyball team thought they would be doing two years later would be hosting a FCIAC playoff game.
But that is exactly what will happen when Stamford hosts its first ever boys volleyball playoff game when as the No. 8 seed it takes on No. 9 Danbury in the Kuczo Gymnasium Friday at 5 p.m.
If they win, the Black Knights will take on No. 1 seeded Darien Monday at 4 p.m. in the FCIAC quarterfinals.
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“We kept working hard and we stayed consistent. We knew we were not good at the time but if we kept at it, we would be good eventually,” senior tri-captain Danny Ryan said. “It was always a goal I wanted to reach was getting into the playoffs. After the 0-20 season our sophomore season, it is going to feel pretty good tomorrow. It’s a lot of hard work we have all put in.”
Making the playoffs was not in question this season with the FCIAC expanding the teams in the tournament from 8 to 13.
What is impressive is Stamford would have made the tournament had this been a regular season, finishing as the eighth best team in the conference.
Considering the team won just two games total since beginning varsity play in 2018 and was 0-20 the last time it played in 2019, making the playoffs is rather incredible.
“I never thought we’d be a playoff team,” senior tri-captain Carlos Manzo said. “There was always a chance because we wanted it for so long. We played our hearts out even though we were losing to these big teams. We realized, if we kept working by the time we were seniors, there would be a small chance of us doing it. We practice, we practice hard and we have great chemistry together.”
Four-year players Manzo (setter) and Ryan (outside hitter/defense) are joined as captains by third-year player senior outside hitter Kai Blackwell.
Stamford also qualified for the CIAC Class L Tournament for the first time and is currently the No. 11 ranked team in Class L.
Stamford closed the regular season winning six of its final seven matches.
The JV and Varsity combined have 18 players with eight players seeing the bulk of the varsity game time.
“They played in New Canaan at Grace Farms in the offseason and they have all been weight-training out of their minds,” Stamford coach Sheena Carpenter said. “We have tough practices. We do game-like situations in practice. If I want to break down the front line and how to get off the net, I put them at the net and we just go toss balls and serve balls quick.”
The players said they cannot imagine any teams going through tougher practices than those Carpenter throws at them.
“I’d be surprised if any other team practices harder than we do,” Senior Libero Gerson Mendez said. “I am very appreciative of how hard she makes us work. If we had a different coach that wasn’t as tough on us, we would not be anywhere near where we are now.”
Carpenter had been trying to get a boys volleyball program together at Stamford for over a decade before finding out in 2018 it was happening.
From there, she took a team of inexperienced players and got smacked around playing some of the top teams in the state. Taking games against anyone, knowing it would make them better.
“They were short, they lacked experience and they got thrown into the fire but whatever we had, I knew we would make it work,” Carpenter said. “We opened up 0-18 and we were playing not only the FCIAC schools but we were going up to Newtown and getting our tails whipped. Year-after-year they all started getting more confidence and experience. Then they started playing at Chelsea Piers and Grace Farms and just volleying with each other. They all became such great friends.”
The seniors quickly bonded and cannot imagine high school without each other.
“A lot of this group that is doing well now has been together for four years and we have progressed as a team,” Ryan said. “We knew at the beginning it was not going to be easy because we were so inexperienced and so small. We all worked hard to get to this point and I have loved playing this season.”