The road that lay ahead for the Southington girls volleyball team and coach Rich Heitz was an imposing one on paper.
Last year’s Class LL semifinalists were hit hard by graduation and none of the returning players stood taller than 5-foot-10. Maintaining the lofty level of achievement that the program has reaped under Heitz’s guidance would require patience and nurturing.
“This team is one of the shortest I’ve had, so we had to change some things in the system we run,” said Heitz, who has won 77 percent of his games since taking over in 2001. “It’s a learning process and we still have to have more improvement, but we haven’t become stagnant. It’s a great bunch of kids. Everybody gets along, and that doesn’t happen for every coach and every team.”
The amount of room for improvement was abundantly clear when the Lady Knights lost their opening match to Northwest Catholic, an improved team but one that Southington had never lost to before (13-0 dating back to 2009 when Northwest joined the CCC).
The Knights immediately put that loss behind them, competed well at two out-of-state tournaments and are brimming with confidence as the postseason nears. They’ll go into the CCC Tournament riding a 10-match regular-season winning streak.
“That initial loss put us down a little, but ended up bringing us together,” said Morgan Raymond, one of four seniors on the squad.
“Our personalities have meshed really well. We’re a completely different team than we were at the beginning. I think we’ve completely changed the way we do things. We play to each other’s strengths because we know each other better on the court. We tweaked things around to get it right.”
Raymond leads a very balanced offensive attack followed by the other senior starters, outside hitter Kelly Kritz and right-side hitter Megan Mahon. Raymond shares the defensive mantle with junior libero Nolyn Allen.
The fourth senior, Erica Daigle, comes off the bench as a serving specialist, a role she played to the utmost in Tuesday’s CCC Central-Blue Division shutout of Glastonbury that gained the Knights at least a share of the divisional title.
Setter Stephanie Zera and middle hitters Erica Bruno and Hannah Zelina are junior starters. The seniors and juniors played on separate off-season teams, so they had to come together for Southington to remain among the state’s elite.
“Every girl does a club program in the offseason, so we knew that every girl was going to come back with improvement,” Kritz said. “We knew coming into the season that we had good components, but we just had to mesh them together. That takes time obviously and I don’t want to jinx us. We’ve been on quite a big win streak.”
Heitz has had some teams with a formidable slugger or two up front, most notably All-Stater Corinne Horanzy, who went on to play Division I ball at the University of Hartford. He has no such luxury this season, but sees advantages to having kills coming from multiple places on the floor.
“We’re going to have five kids with over 100 kills, whereas some years we’ve had one or two dominant hitters,” he said. “The preference is for the team on the other side to have that one big hitter because we can focus on her. Not seeing so many swings from the same spot could make it harder on the defense.”
The stat line
Raymond leads the team with 188 kills followed by Kritz (165), Mahon (147), Zelina (139) and Bruno (105). Zelina has the best success rate (40.6 percent) with Raymond at 40.4.
At the service line, Daigle is the epitome of accuracy (94.4 percent). Zelina wins the high risk/high reward sweepstakes with 67 aces and a 90.3 success rate.
As it is with attacking the net, the Knights are deep at the line and probably the best group Heitz has had.
Kritz has 54 aces and is serving at a 86.8 percentage. Zera, back to using her jump serve having sufficiently recovered from knee surgery, has 50 aces and a 90.5 percentage. Raymond has 41 aces and a 90.7 percentage. The team serves at a lofty 88.6 norm.
Blocking, however, is not Southington’s specialty because of the lack of size in the middle. Zelina has 47 and the team has just 95.
Raymond is the top defender in the back row with 394 serve receptions and 243 digs. Allen has filled her job description capably with 278 receptions and 223 digs. Kritz is next at 136 and 125.
“[The team chemistry] is the best I’ve ever had,” Heitz said.
“It’s always been pretty good but [has gotten better] as we’ve accomplished things.”
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