Riverhead coach Kristin Andrejack and her players had nothing but positives to say after their high school girls volleyball team’s season-opening match on Thursday. They glowed with excitement over what they had seen from their team.
All that offseason work the players put in showed. Drastic improvements were seen in the form of digging balls, scrappy defense and aggressive, hard swings at the ball on offense.
Oh, and by the way, Riverhead lost in three games to visiting Newfield. But as outside hitter Olivia Dickerson put it, “It’s not always about winning.”
The changes Andrejack saw in her team, which went 1-11 last year, were considerable.
“I could not be more proud of their performance today,” she said after the 25-20, 25-16, 25-17 loss in the Suffolk County League III match. She added: “The way that we showed up today, it was a new Riverhead volleyball and it really is humbling to watch them out there and their love for the game.”
It’s a young Riverhead team, co-captained by its only two seniors, right-side hitter Lelaina Bendernagel and Dickerson. They were in the starting lineup along with Hannah Brewer, Alexis Polak, Melanie Vail and Courtney Wharton.
“Game day can be a make or break,” Andrejack said. “I see it in practice. I see it when they’re in their comfort zone, but stepping onto the court for their first game, the nerves can take over and an athlete can underperform under the pressure, but that didn’t happen today.”
Riverhead, which had only two practices in the previous six days leading up to the match, didn’t exhibit nerves.
“I honestly was so surprised, but in such a good way,” Bendernagel said. “I was so proud of these girls and what they put out onto the court because since we did have the four days off, it was kind of shaky on what we were going to do and how we were going to perform.”
Riverhead’s first set was its best. The Blue Waves twice took the lead in that set and the score was tied six times, the last time when a service ace by Wharton evened terms at 11-11.
“I knew Newfield was a decent team, but we came out fighting,” Dickerson said. “It’s a great improvement from last year. I feel like we have a lot more energy and the girls are just a lot more connected on the court.”
But Newfield (1-1, 1-1) found its game. After Riverhead pulled within 17-16, Newfield closed the set on an 8-4 run.
Newfield stormed to a 5-0 lead in the second set and forged an 18-8 cushion on Olivia Bond’s ace. Riverhead rallied with successive kills by Dickerson, Polak and Dickerson again, trimming its deficit to six points at 18-12. But Newfield went on to finish that set, the final three points coming on hitting errors.
In the third set, Newfield snapped a 4-4 tie with a 9-3 burst that featured two aces by Grace Scura and two kills by Naomi Ruffalo-Roman (10 kills, three aces). Riverhead pulled no closer than within four points after that.
Madison Wenzel compiled 19 assists for Newfield.
“Even though we didn’t get the win … it was such a lovely surprise to see where we ended up today,” said Bendernagel.
With 14 regular-season games remaining, the Blue Waves are encouraged and hopeful about improving on their win total from last year.
“They’ve brought themselves up, if not one level, two levels,” Andrejack said. “They are hungry for it. They came out of this game and they’re not down on themselves. They know that they worked hard. They know that Newfield is a very competitive program and they respect that. So, all they came out of here thinking was they got some things to work on, but we’re on track.”
Dickerson said: “I’m just excited for the season. I’m excited to see where my team goes.”