ST. JAMES — From the head coach to the players, the Smithtown East High School girls volleyball team consists of as affable a group as one is likely to find anywhere. That friendliness and pleasantness is part of their off-the-court demeanor. On the court, though, the Bulls are all about business. When they are playing, the Bulls go hard, rarely giving points away.
“When we’re on, we’re on, and can do really great things,” Delia Phillips, the team’s standout junior outside hitter, said. “We’re relentless. We don’t give up very easily, and we’re going to give it our all, no matter what.”
Just to get an idea of how big a hill the Riverhead Blue Waves tried to climb in their Suffolk County Class AA Tournament first-round match against Smithtown East on Thursday, consider this: With the exception of a hitting error here and there, Riverhead played well in the first game — and still lost, 25-15.
Riverhead proceeded to play what its coach, James Korte, called its best match of the year. It didn’t matter as far as the final result was concerned. Third-seeded Smithtown East took the next two games, 25-15 and 25-9, to advance to the quarterfinals. The League III champion Bulls (13-2) will host the No. 6 Copiague Eagles (14-3) in a quarterfinal on Saturday.
In order for No. 14 Riverhead (6-9) to have pulled off an upset, it would have needed to play a close to flawless match. The margin of error that Smithtown East allows opponents is next to nil.
“They don’t make many mistakes,” Korte said of the Bulls. “They kept the ball [on] the court and the pressure on us.”
With 95-percent serving, Smithtown East made only four service errors. Phillips, who Smithtown East Coach George Alamia regards as one of the top five hitters on Long Island, put away 13 kills to go with nine service points, four service aces, one dink and one block. The Bulls also received 21 assists from Katie Szabo and 11 service points from Maggie Engellenner, a defensive specialist who excels at keeping balls from falling to the floor. Kristen Scicchitano went 14 for 14 serving with seven service points.
Alyssa Meyer had eight assists and Danielle McCabe put down five kills for Riverhead .
Smithtown East, which has won four straight league championships, has never won a county crown, although it came painfully close last year. The Bulls had won the first game of the 2009 county final, but saw their best hitter, Kathie Demonte, go down with an injury in the second game. They ended up losing in five games to the Ward Melville Patriots.
Phillips called it the toughest loss she has ever experienced. At the same time, she said, “We definitely left with our heads up just because we know that we played a good match, and that’s what matters most.”
Alamia said his team is determined not to end the season with an empty feeling. The Bulls want to win their first county title since Smithtown was split into Smithtown East and Smithtown West.
“We think we’re one of the best teams in the playoffs,” Alamia said. “We’re not looking up to anybody. We feel like we can play with anybody and take anybody on any given day.”
That’s the sort of team Riverhead had to contend with, and the Blue Waves didn’t shy away from the challenge. They hung tough, even when Smithtown East charged out to a 9-0 lead in the second game, largely on the strength of Scicchitano’s serving. Riverhead was unable to come back from that deficit, but it did close the gap to one point at 13-12 before Smithtown East pulled away again.
“That’s something with us,” Riverhead outside hitter Stacy Griffing said. “We don’t give up, no matter how much we’re down by.”
Riverhead led only once at 4-3 in the third game, but the Blue Waves could feel good about their effort.
“Our best game was today,” Griffing said. “I think we played really hard. I’ve never seen everyone hit the floor like they did today. Everyone was chasing balls, and we did really well with our serving.”
Griffing played her final match for Riverhead as did the team’s five other seniors: Brianna Gillian, Emily Groneman, Jamilyn Marsh, McCabe and Meyer.
Smithtown East, meanwhile, still has more volleyball to play. Its best could be yet to come.
Said Phillips, “We’ve got more stuff to show you.”