The Amity Spartans ended the 2018 girls volleyball season in a celebratory pile on the floor of the East Haven gymnasium after winning the Class LL championship.
Along the way to their first state title since 2003, the Spartans knocked off a nemesis, Cheshire, a state title favorite, Westhill, and the state’s all-time leader in championships, Darien, who Amity topped 3-1 in the final.
It was a storybook ending for the program’s seniors, including dynamic outside hitter Abby Harbinson, who was named the New Haven Register’s All-Area MVP.
With Harbinson now playing volleyball at Rollins College in Florida, and three other members of the Amity front row also having graduated, the Spartans have faced the challenging task of turning the page to a new season with an almost entirely-new lineup.
“Losing one of the better players in the state, Abby Harbinson, is not easy to replace, but the girls have worked hard and are starting to come together as a team,” Amity coach Seth Davis said. “The defense is playing well, I have two girls still competing to be the libero — Haile Elbert and Gabby McGovern — (setter) Zoe DiZenzo has been doing a great job distributing the ball and giving our hitters the confidence they need to do well.”
The Spartans took an added hit in the spring when one of their captains, hitter Megan Carpenter, tore her ACL, ending her senior season before it even started.
Even with the big shoes to fill, Amity has gotten off to a strong start, going 5-2, with the losses coming against two defending league champs: The SCC’s Cheshire, 3-1, and the FCIAC’s Trumbull, 3-2.
Lauren Campos, a senior, is also a team co-captain, and she and Carpenter have been strong leaders, according to Davis.
“They have taken on the role well and are really getting the girls to work together,” Davis said. “They really loving doing team-building activities and are getting everyone involved, including the younger girls.”
Campos, who leads the team in kills with 47, along with seniors Madisson Smith and Lauren Walsh, have taken on active roles as hitters, while McGovern, a senior libero/defensive specialist, has a team-high 61 digs.
One huge plus for the Spartans has been the play of DiZenzo, a junior, at setter. One of GameTimeCT’s 25 Players to Watch this season, DiZenzo was a key cog for the championship team last year, and had 121 assists in Amity’s first five matches this fall.
“Zoe has developed a lot as a player in the offseason,” Davis said. “She has taken on a new role in being a leader on the court. Coming into this year we knew it would be a challenge trying to get a new offense going, but she has taken it in stride. She is a great communicator with all of the girls and the coaches.
“It was really a comfort knowing that she knows how to handle herself on the court and she is also a great teammate in every sense of the word. She loves volleyball and she is a great competitor. Even though she won a state championship it hasn’t lessened her drive to do well. If anything, it has motivated her to work hard and help drive the team to work harder.”
Amity, which has reached the SCC final the past three seasons and was the Class LL runner-up in 2017 before winning it all last year, has its work cut out in a loaded SCC.
Guilford is undefeated at 8-0 and just shut out Cheshire, Jonathan Law is 8-0, and Cheshire and Shelton are both 7-1.
Davis said his Spartans are up for the challenge.
“The entire team understands that in order to compete with the good teams in the state you need to work hard,” Davis said. “They are doing that very well together.”
With all the talk of contending swirling around Greenwich, Ludlowe, Trumbull, Westhill and Darien, one FCIAC team which has been lost in the shuffle has been New Canaan.
Led by coach Kevin Marino, who is in his third year with the team, the Rams have rolled out to a 6-1 record — their best start since 2011 — and boast numerous weapons in the lineup.
Of added benefit, New Canaan is young, with a large group of juniors and a sophomore setter seeing big chunks of time on the court.
“They’ve been working super-hard since their freshman year to get to this point,” Marino said. “We’re hoping that they keep growing and keep getting better. Our goal is to keep getting better every day. They’ve stayed true to the craft and worked hard.”
The Rams’ 3-1 win at Stamford High School last Thursday broke a long drought for the program, as New Canaan hadn’t beaten Stamford since 2010, when Marino was still a senior in high school.
Senior co-captain and middle hitter Ally Leopold led the attack with 12 kills and three blocks; junior Libero Annie Gravereaux had 17 digs; junior Emily Johnson had five kills and six aces; junior Alex Gillespie had seven kills; and sophomore setter Elle Sneddon racked up 34 assists.
“This is a big win for us,” Marino said. “We haven’t beaten Stamford in a few years which shows how good of a team they are, so for us to come in here and get a win is exciting and promising for us. The biggest thing has been getting them to play with confidence. We have little drop-offs here and there where we’re not playing confidently, but then they pick it back up.”
“There are definitely a lot of hard workers on this team,” Gravereaux said. “Everyone’s trying so much harder because we all want to do better than we did last year when it wasn’t a great season. So we’re coming off of that and trying to get better.”
FORFEITS AND A BOUNCE BACK
St. Paul Catholic was 17-5 and reached the second round of the Class S playoffs last season, and the Falcons have their sights set on another playoff trip this fall.
Unfortunately, the Falcons’ record took a hit last week, as they had to forfeit four games. According to the CIAC, St. Paul discovered the use of an ineligible player and reported the violation.
The forfeits affected matches against Watertown, Naugatuck, Sacred Heart and Oxford — all St. Paul victories — and resulted in the first win in program history for Sacred Heart, which is in its first year as a varsity program.
While the record may have changed, St. Paul hasn’t seemed any worse for the wear on the court, winning three straight matches to move to 3-4. Though they could have been 7-0, the Falcons appear to be well on their way to the state playoffs again.