The start of the high school volleyball season is an open book. Which is what made the CIAC’s Early Season Block Party tournament such a good read.
With 20 top teams, including state champions Amity (Class LL), Joel Barlow (L) and Seymour (M) along with state runner-up Darien (LL) on the slate, the tournament featured many interesting matchups at the CT Sports Center in Woodbridge on Sept. 14.
It provided a look at the new rosters for coaches, who were still tinkering with their lineups and finding out what combinations worked best.
“What happened last year really doesn’t matter because we’ve all lost players,” Joel Barlow coach Carol Asplund said. “A tournament like this, you get to see some great teams and try some different things. For me, I’m making a lot of changes. I’m making different lineups and seeing how the girls react in pressure situations. The games are faster-paced, so that’s the goal, to get used to playing at that pace.”
“This tournament is really good for us,” said Trumbull’s second-year coach Nicole Trommelan, who guided her Eagles to their first conference title last fall. “We get to see teams not just from the FCIAC, but from all over the state, so we get to play against a bunch of different players and coaches. And it allows them to build camaraderie. They’re hanging out together all day and they’re playing a lot of volleyball.”
The tournament is in its second year and was created by the CIAC “in an effort to provide a large, competitive, multi-team event opportunity to facilitate teams making good use of the permitted contests.”
Starting in 2013, schools were permitted to play in two multi-team events among their 20 regular-season contests. Results of those events do not count toward state tournament qualification, but they provide a championship environment and, in this case, a great launching pad into the season.
“You get a lot more touches and a lot more reps for your team, and you also get to see different teams on the other side of the net, which is helpful,” New Canaan coach Kevin Marino said. “We’ve seen different things all day long, so we’re happy about that. And it’s a good confidence-builder knowing you can play with some of the better teams in the state.”
Teams were placed in two divisions — Silver and Gold — and the tournament featured six pool play matches to start, followed by bracket play in the afternoon. All teams played approximately eight matches.
Ludlowe won the tournament’s Gold Division, overcoming Trumbull before knocking off Avon in the final, while Joel Barlow won a tight match with Darien and then defeated Amity in its final for the Silver Division crown.
“Tournaments like this are always great because you get such a diversity of play,” Darien senior co-captain Sophia Talwalkar said. “It works to our advantage because in the season, you’ll need to adjust to different teams. So this teaches us to adjust really quickly and change our energy if we need to.”
For some of the defending champs, the tournament was an eye-opener, as they work to overcome the graduations of some key players.
“Having short games like this gives us a lot of chances to prove ourselves to our coach and expose our team to other teams we might not play throughout the season,” Amity setter Zoe DiZenzo said. “It’s great to get a feel for everyone else and how they play.”
Amity is among those returning state champions who have some big shoes to fill and learned a lot at the Block Party.
“We have a good team,” DiZenzo said. “We did lose a lot of talent from last year, but I think we make up for it with the people we have here. I hope to see a lot of drive from everyone and if we have that drive, we can go far.”
A BOLD MOVE FOR WOODSTOCK
When you have the reigning Connecticut State Player of the Year on your team, it opens up a lot of options.
Faced with the graduations of his two top setters, Woodstock Academy coach Adam Bottone tried a bold experiment during the preseason: He shifted senior Paula Hernandez from the outside hitter spot where she starred last season to setter.
Hernandez, who moved to Connecticut from Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in 2017, was open to the move and as far as Bottone is concerned, there isn’t anything she can’t do on the volleyball court.
“She’s the best setter I have, the best hitter I have, the best passer I have, the best server I have — she’s the best everything I have,” Bottone said. “She’s been playing long enough and at a high enough level in club in both Puerto Rico and up here that she understands the game like no other player I’ve seen. So I know she can run an offense.”
The loss of former setters Sammi Orlowski and Emma Green from last year’s team, which reached the Class L final, combined with the struggles of some potential setters prompted the move.
A first scrimmage against Shepard Hill from Dudley, Mass., went very well for both Hernandez and the team, but the Centaurs struggled to get the ball to Hernandez during a scrimmage with Fitch, and when she did set up a play, the hitters were sending the ball out more than half the time.
“So I started looking at what really matters with being successful and winning, and that’s your ability to outserve and pass the ball better than the other team, and your outside hitters,” Bottone said. “If you do those three things better than the other team, you’ll win your games, so I slid her back to the outside (hitter position) and that’s where she’s going to be playing.”
Although the Centaurs lost their first three matches, they’ve rebounded to win two of their last three. They’re bidding for a third straight ECC championship and a shot at an elusive state title — they’ve been the runners-up the past two seasons.
“The accolades are there for her, but she’s clearly not about herself,” Bottone said. “Her desire and determination to make the team better so it’s successful for everybody supercedes anything when it comes to her personally. That’s rare to find in student-athletes today.”