10/31/13 7:42pm
10/31/2013 7:42 PM
GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Riverhead's Danielle Thomas tries to put a hit past Ward Melvile's Alex Stein.

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Riverhead’s Danielle Thomas tries to put a hit past Ward Melville’s Alex Stein.


The Riverhead and Ward Melville girls volleyball teams might have wondered if Halloween 2013 would bring them a trick or a treat. The truth is, the spectators were the ones who were in for a treat.

Playoff volleyball on Halloween.

“It doesn’t get any better than that,” said Riverhead coach Amy Greene.

And not many teams are better than Ward Melville. It was favored Ward Melville that won the entertaining, well-played playoff match on its home court Thursday. After dropping the first game, No. 6 seed Ward Melville took the next three games for a 21-25, 25-13, 25-14, 25-14 victory in the Suffolk County Class AA Tournament first-round match.

No. 11 Riverhead (11-5), playing its first playoff match in three years, knew it was in for a tough match against Ward Melville (12-2), which reached the state tournament last year for the eighth time in team history. The Patriots are co-champions of League I along with Sachem East.

It looks as if Ward Melville has the ability to return to the state tournament this year.

“I feel good about them,” the team’s 15-year coach, Charlie Fernandes, said. “I do. I feel like we’re a very good team. I think we’ve been a little overlooked. I’m fine with that. We know what’s going on in our gym.”

Riverhead experienced it firsthand, and gave a good account of itself in the process. The Blue Waves went with a starting lineup of Megan Brewer, Dezarea Brown, Hali Martens, Joanna Messina, Danielle Thomas and Sara Tucci, with Joscelin Morrow playing libero. They won the first game, a tight, back-and-forth affair in which Ward Meville committed 15 unforced errors. The Patriots did not look happy as they headed to their bench before the start of the second game.

“I think we woke up some beast,” said Greene.

Maybe so.

Ward Melville then raised the level of its play noticeably. The Patriots never trailed in the second and fourth games and were behind only briefly in the third game.

“They got a little scare put into them, and that’s not always the worst thing,” Fernandes said. “I liked how we finished today. We have a tendency sometimes to run really hard and maybe taper off when we get a five- or six-point lead. We kept coming today.”

And how.

Carly Backiel, a junior setter, provided the Patriots with 38 assists.

The Patriots have hitters, too. With Backiel’s accurate setting, Ward Melville put away 36 kills, 14 of them coming from Amanda DiGirolamo and 9 from Alex Stein, to wrap up its fifth straight win. Leigh Gulbransen went 26 of 28 serving with 4 aces.

“Alex Stein can bury a ball,” Fernandes said. “Christine Donat can bury a ball. Amanda DiGirolamo almost is so good that you don’t notice how good she is. She’s so quietly effective. The kid hit like .500 tonight.”

Tucci had 22 assists for Riverhead.

Players on both sides were committed on defense, flinging themselves to the floor to pop up balls and digging drives that often don’t come back. It surely wasn’t the sort of volleyball that is played at the family picnic.

“It was good volleyball,” Fernandes said.  “… Big-kid volleyball is what I call it. We were blocking and swinging at each other, and that’s what you want to do. It’s intense. It’s in your face.”

Fernandes was complimentary of the way Riverhead played. “I think Riverhead is a program on the rise,” he said. “I have to give a lot of props to their coach. I think she’s doing a great job. … She has that program on the right path.”

What has helped Riverhead the most this season?

Brewer didn’t hesitate to provide an answer. “Hard practices,” she said. “We definitely go hard at practice. Our coach really works us.”

Greene said she is constantly pushing her players to improve. That may explain the team’s strong showing this year.

“This season has probably been the best I’ve seen Riverhead play,” said Greene, a former standout for the Blue Waves who went on to become an All-Conference outside hitter at Eastern Connecticut State University. “We finished the season as strong as they possibly can. They should have no regrets. I have no regrets. They put their hearts out there, and even in that last game, that fourth game when we were down by so much, they never gave up.”

The loss marked the end of the high school playing careers of five Riverheaders: Allison Fox, Brewer, Martens, Thomas and Tucci. They leave the team with some nice memories.

“I couldn’t ask for a better season,” Martens said. “It was just great. We’ve come so far. I’m just like happy that we even made it to playoffs.”

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10/18/13 7:37pm
10/18/2013 7:37 PM

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead junior Joscelin Morrow (left) and senior Hali Martens celebrate a Blue Waves’ point in Friday’s playoff-clinching win over Deer Park.

BLUE WAVES 3, FALCONS 1 (23-25, 25-14, 25-14, 25-12)

There was never a thought of if the Riverhead girls volleyball team would clinch a playoff spot. For coach Amy Greene, it was only a matter of when.

As the Blue Waves celebrated in the aftermath of Friday’s playoff-clinching win over Deer Park at Riverhead High School, Greene had a surprise for her players: white T-shirts proudly proclaiming the Blue Waves are playoff bound.

“These were a surprise,” said senior Hali Martens after the team posed for photos in their new shirts. “We didn’t know we were getting them, so I guess coach had a lot of faith in us.”

The Blue Waves had four matches remaining beginning Friday and needed just one win to guarantee their first playoff trip since 2010.

“I tell them I have more confidence in them than the world,” Greene said. “So I believed that they were going to get there. Whatever game they got there, those shirts were going to come out for them. It’s a little extra boost.”

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead senior Danielle Thomas rises up at the net.

For the five seniors on varsity it’ll be their first time playing in a playoff match. The playoffs are slated to begin Oct. 31.

“It’s awesome because we’ve always been the underdog,” Martens said. “Now we came back and we’re better than ever.”

It almost looked as if the T-shirts might have be stored away for at least another match when the Falcons came out and took Game 1, 25-23, after holding off a late rally from the Blue Waves.

It was the fourth straight match Riverhead lost Game 1, but the Waves bounced back to dominate the rest of the way. Riverhead won the next three games 25-14, 25-14, 25-12.

Greene said a pep rally at the end of the school day to kick off homecoming festivities might have zapped some of the team’s energy.

“I think the girls were a little bit drained from exerting all their energy there and then coming into here,” she said. “We just needed to wake up a little bit on the court again.”

Deer Park came into the match with only one league win on its resume. But the Falcons (2-10 overall) came out strong, not giving away any easy points to Riverhead (9-3 overall) and forcing the Blue Waves to make plays.

Martens said improving communication on the court was a key to the turnaround.

Riverhead’s last playoff appearance came in 2010 when the Blue Waves, as the No. 14 seed, lost to Smithtown East in the first round.

“The loss kind of motivated us,” she said.

Martens had a big day playing outside hitter for Riverhead with 6 kills and 10 digs. Junior libero Joscelin Morrow had 41 digs and 6 service aces.

Late in Game 2, with the Falcons still hanging around, Morrow and Martens both came up with several big plays to close out the game. Morrow took the serve with Riverhead ahead 20-14. The Blue Waves closed out the game with five straight points, including a Martens kill and ace from Morrow. Middle hitter Megan Brewer delivered the final point with a kill.

In Game 3, Riverhead jumped ahead 12-4 and never looked back. Game 4 was similar as the Blue Waves led 10-1, then 17-3.

“Once we [woke up], they were relentless,” Greene said. “They were all over the floor and they were exciting to watch.”

There was some good news with the return of sophomore Dezarea Brown, who had missed a few matches with an ankle injury, Greene said. Brown played sparingly in the middle as Greene wanted to bring back along slowly.

“She came back and it was like she never left,” Martens said.

Greene said Brown’s return just adds to the Blue Waves’ depth. In her absence junior Rachel Clement got more playing time.

JOE WERKMEISTER PHOTO | Riverhead coach Amy Greene had shirts made up for her team to celebrate clinching a playoff spot.

Senior Sara Tucci had 20 assists and a pair of service aces for Riverhead.

“She does a great job getting to the ball,” Greene said. “She put her body out on the floor a few times. And she hustles to set every ball.”

With one goal complete now in making the playoffs, the Blue Waves will turn their attention to the next goal: closing out the regular season with three more wins and beating Bellport Oct. 28.

The Clippers, who are 8-1 in league, defeated Riverhead in a grueling five-set match two weeks ago.

“Our goal is to beat Bellport,” Martens said. “That’s a really big goal we have.”

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09/26/13 8:39pm
09/26/2013 8:39 PM

ROBERT O’ROURK FILE PHOTOS | Riverhead seniors Sara Tucci (left) and Hali Martens have developed a strong rapport on the court together.

BLUE WAVES 3, EAGLES 0 (25-15, 25-15, 25-20)

On the surface, volleyball appears a simple sport. Serve the ball over the net. Dig out a return, set and hit.

Then repeat.

But in reality, the six players who share a relatively confined area on the court must operate as one cohesive unit for it all to work. As one player moves, the other five instinctively must slide into position, ready to predict where the ball will end up at just the precise time. It can all seem like random chaos.

Often, though, what appears like chaos is carefully orchestrated plays the team has rehearsed countless times in practice.

For Riverhead, the quarterback of it all is the setter — senior Sara Tucci.

“She runs all the offense on free balls, on regular plays,” said Riverhead coach Amy Greene. “Sara runs our entire offense.”

In Thursday afternoon’s League IV win over West Babylon at home, Tucci tallied 24 assists for the Blue Waves, who won in a 3-0 sweep to improve to 6-1 overall.

A three-year varsity player, Tucci often connected with senior Hali Martens, an outside hitter who’s become Tucci’s main target when setting.

In their three years together on varsity, the duo have developed a strong chemistry on the court, which was on full display against West Babylon.

“We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” Martens said.

Like a baseball catcher signaling the pitcher, Tucci will call the plays for Riverhead, which can be delivered via a discreet hand signal. Other times the players will quickly huddle together as to not alert the other team of an impending play. On some plays, Martens, as the hitter, will signal to Tucci where she wants to be led for a hit.

Do other teams ever pick up on it?

“We’re secretive about it,” Martens said.

Tucci added: “If we don’t do the sign, we’ll call each other over, so it’s not like we’re screaming it.”

The key to running special plays starts with defense, Greene said. The anchor of the Blue Waves’ defense is their libero, junior Joscelin Morrow. She recorded 20 digs against West Babylon and is a big part of getting the ball to Tucci.

“We all rely on everybody,” Greene said. “There’s not a one-player team. All six of those girls out there are very important.”

When Tucci prepares for a set, she always has an eye on where Martens is positioned.

“She’s a really smart player,” Tucci said. “She knows if line’s open she’s going to go line. She knows what she’s doing.”

Martens said Tucci is a deceptive player.

“She’ll trick the other team by tipping it over,” Martens said.

Greene said pushing the ball over has been something Tucci has worked on this season.

“Today she got three or four points off of that,” she said.

Midway through Game 2, Tucci had the option of setting a pass to Martens in front of her. Instead, she delivered a deft pass behind her to the Blue Waves’ towering sophomore, Dezarea Brown, who swatted the ball over the net for one of her eight kills.

It was another example of Tucci’s expanded game and ability to keep the opposing team off balance.

“Sara’s a very smart setter,” Greene said. “She knows who’s on and she sets them.”

Brown has emerged as another big target for Tucci. A relative newcomer to volleyball, Brown showed flashes Thursday of a dominant player with several of her kills and blocks.

Martens and Tucci said the older players try to help bring Brown along.

“She’s very good, but she’s very quiet,” Martens said. “Sometimes you need to go over and give her a high-five.”

With each practice and match, Brown continues to gain more experience and will become a bigger and bigger factor for Riverhead.

Brown’s height and athleticism make her a natural hitter in volleyball. At times when she jumps, it seems like half of her body is over the net, Greene said.

“It’s amazing to watch her play,” she said.

Brown’s presence on the team along with the veterans like Tucci, Martens, Morrow and seniors Danielle Thomas and Megan Brewer has the Blue Waves off to one of their best starts in recent years.

The Blue Waves are 3-1 in league heading into some of their more difficult matches next week against Half Hollow Hills West and Bellport.

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