Cheshire and Southington have been the regional vanguards of Class LL girls volleyball throughout the tenure of their eminent coaches.
Cheshire’s Sue Bavone has racked up four L’ championships, a dozen SCC Tournament titles and a stunning 488 wins in 24 seasons. The Blue Knights’ Rich Heitz has won or shared 12 CCC divisional crowns and won the LL title in 2009.
Yet they are very different people with divergent coaching philosophies, and an annual regular season meeting made difficult due to league scheduling parameters has never been a huge priority. Although their towns share a border and a vibrant football rivalry, their volleyball teams rarely cross paths.
But destiny has thrown them together four times in the Class LL tournaments. The fifth, and the first in a tournament final, is on the horizon if both can get by rugged semifinal tests Wednesday night.
No. 2 Southington (21-3) puts its title-match bid on the line at Bunnell High School in Stratford against FCIAC Tournament champion and sixth-seeded Greenwich (22-4). Undefeated No. 1 seed Cheshire (23-0) faces a much more familiar foe in No. 5 Amity (18-4). The two teams meet for the 13th time in four years when tangle in the semifinals at Naugatuck.
First serves for both matches are slated for 6 p.m.
Senior setter Steph Zera is the essence of the Blue Knights’ success. Zera, who gained experience as a freshman, was named to play in the Connecticut High School Coaches Association Senior All-Star Game on Monday at Plainville High.
“It’s a prestigious event where some of the top high school players in the state have an opportunity to compete in a five-set match,” Heitz said. “Only 24 players from the state are selected. With the injury that she made it through (torn ACL between her sophomore and junior seasons), to make this game is something else.”
Zera has amassed 939 assists while making just 35 ball-handling errors all season. She notched her program-record 2,000th assist on October 25 against Pomperaug.
The Southington attack is exquisitely balanced, with five hitters logging between 170 and 195 kills. Erica Bruno forged into the lead during postseason play. Hannah Zelina is battling a persistent flu bug, but is nearing 100 percent. Brooke Cooney, Sarah Myrick and Haley Larrabee are all adept at putting points away.
“Erica was phenomenal last week,” Heitz said. “She had 13 kills with just one hitting error against Staples (in Thursday’s 2nd round) and 16 kills with two errors against Trumbull (Saturday in the quarterfinals).”
Libero Nolyn Allen (over 11 digs, 13 serves received per match) is the leader in the back row with strong support from Larrabee.
Jenna Martin has been the Knights’ top server with 70 aces and a 94.6 success ratio. Larrabee and Zera each have 60 or more aces and plus-90 percentages.
The Cardinals, coached by Hamden native Steve Lapham, have won 18 consecutive matches. They avenged losses against St. Joseph with a shutout in the FCIAC Tournament finale. The other setbacks came against RHAM and Brien McMahon.
Heitz is familiar with RHAM. The Sachems, ranked first in the state coaches’ poll, whitewashed Southington during the regular season and again in the CCC tourney final. The only other team to beat the Knights this year was Avon on October 13.
Greenwich is led by first-team All-FCIAC setter Nicole Wood and second-teamer Adnerys DeJesus, who patrols the back row. Tara Ford is the big hitter followed by Erica Hauschild. Maggy Egan leads the team in serving. All four are seniors.
“This is a very good team that’s playing real well,” said Heitz, who watched Greenwich first-hand in the John Jay (N.Y.) Invitational on September 23. “They played in the FCIAC and that’s a good league. We’ve played a tough schedule that was rated the toughest in Connecticut, so both teams have played strong competition.”
The Rams tilted their longstanding rivalry with Amity back their way this season with two regular-season victories.
Amity won five straight over Cheshire in 2015-16, ending a string dating back to 2008 in which the Rams won 17 of 18. Cheshire drove Amity from the Class LL tournament in 2004, 2005, 2013 and 2014.
“When I first came here (1994), that’s all they talked about – Amity, Amity, Amity,” Bavone said. “But we just treat it as another game. The chance to go to a final supersedes any rivalry.”
Cheshire is led at the net by junior middle hitter Meagan Clyne, recently named SCC Tournament MVP. Italian exchange student Elena Piran is also a formidable hitter on the outside. Middle blocker Brady McQuade has put together a strong senior season.
“Brady is the most improved player on the team,” Bavone said. “She used to just paddle-hit, but this year she’s been our most steady producer. She does everything quietly. She’s not a big emotion player.”
The Rams will be missing sophomore outside Lindsey Abramson, claimed by a serious knee injury – the “unhappy triad,” as Bavone called it – in the second-round win over Stamford Thursday.
The Spartans are buoyed by the presence of their 6-foot-1 middle blocker Abby Harbinson, who missed one of the Cheshire matches this season.
“This time of the year the kids are kind of beat up, so they do the best they can for the final push,” Bavone said. “You field the team you have, so we’ll look different and they’ll have their full complement of players. We’re lucky we have good depth. The kids aren’t freaked out. We switch their positions all the time in practice.”
Basketball star Mia Judaitis has been effective on the right side.
“She’s playing her best at the right time,” Bavone said. “She’s just learning the game because she doesn’t play in the offseason. She has a better nose for blocking and she’s active on defense. The other aspects of game start to come around.”
Setter Karly Pedbereznak personifies Cheshire’s developmental system in that she came off the junior varsity roster to seamlessly evolve into the quarterback of the offense. Bavone also uses junior Michelle Frenkel in her 6-2 scheme.
Bavone didn’t use a libero in the early going, but junior Nina Montagna emerged. Megan Kroqi, Alexis Benevenuti, Ava Millares and Nicole Purtill have all seen time as defensive specialists.
Amity features Harbinson, the leader in kills and blocks. Brooke Matyasovsky, an elite back-row defender, leads the team in serving. Jaiden Williams is the setter and Danielle Nordyk starts on the right side. The 5-foot-11 Caroline Fertman gives the Spartans additional size in the middle.