GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Riverhead’s Danielle Thomas tries to put a hit past Ward Melville’s Alex Stein.
SUFFOLK CLASS AA TOURNAMENT | PATRIOTS 21, 25, 25, 25, BLUE WAVES 25, 13, 14, 14
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.
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.”
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.”