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.
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.