by John Goralski
The Lady Knight volleyball team surged through the playoffs, picking off top seeds in a Cinderella romp that fell just one game short of the championship game. The offense didn’t falter in hostile gyms against a pair of top teams. The defense stayed poised as they held off attacks from Stamford and Glastonbury.
Even in the loss to top-ranked Darien, Southington hitters held their own with an eight point victory in the first game and a series of two-point losses.
…then came graduation.
“We lost a load of experience,” said Lady Knight coach Rich Heitz. “When you’ve got seven seniors, and most of them played four years apiece, you’re talking about close to 30 years of experience.”
Gone is a two-time all-state hitter that anchored the attack with close to 400 kills. Off to college went both of the team’s 90-percent servers and the next four servers on the list. The top four producers from the back row are gone as well as a veteran setter with over 700 assists.
‘Rebuilding’ is the term that most coaches use in these sorts of preseasons as they try to manage expectations and temper excitement, but Heitz doesn’t seem worried. A sly smile plays across his face at a preseason practice as he watches his young players shift through drills like a well-oiled machine. He points out a six-footer—a missing component from last season’s team. He points to a returning veteran that was sidelined most of last season with an injury.
It’s the present, not the future, that has Heitz excited.
“We don’t like the word ‘rebuilding,’” he said. “Yeah, we’re young. We’ll have some growing pains, but we like to say that we’re just reloading. Sometimes that takes a little bit of time, but I’m really excited to work with this group of kids. They have all been working so hard.”
Heitz will not take it easy with his young team. Southington opens the season with a conference rival. They’ll face Woodstock Academy, NW Catholic, and Farmington in a mid-September stretch that would scare a veteran squad. In October, the girls will rekindle their rivalry with powerhouse Bristol Eastern. Glastonbury will try to avenge their postseason loss in a non-conference battle a few weeks later, and the season will culminate in the annual battle with Coventry, a perennial championship team.
Heitz embraces the challenge.
“We want to play with the best, and we want to contend. We may not be considered the team to beat, but we’re a main contender,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a lot of fun for the fans that come out to see us. They’re going to get plenty of opportunities to say, ‘Wow. That kid’s only a sophomore or a junior.’ They’re all going to be coming back next year.”
It helps that Allison McCormick returns to the lineup in 2013 after missing most of last fall with an injury. The lone senior has provided the necessary leadership as Southington’s young stars continue to develop. McCormick was a member of Southington’s runner-up team in 2011, and Heitz expects his senior captain to use that experience to lead a strong core of talented players.
McCormick is a strong defensive player, and Heitz points out that defense wins championships.
“Allie is fun and energetic, but she’s also a no-nonsense person,” said Heitz. “She’s got a nice mix of being here to have fun and to work hard. It’s a good balance, and the kids respect that.”
McCormick will be joined in the back row by junior defender Kateri Downes. Sophomore Emily Mankus could see time as a defender, but the Libero position could be a toss up between McCormick and Downes.
“Kateri played in club. Allie played a little bit last year, but I don’t think either one of them really cares,” said Heitz. “I think that they just want to put the best lineup in there every time, and I think it will come down to those two in the back row.”
The back row will be the first and last word for Southington’s success. Their defense should be sound, and their serving should be their strength as the Knights try to keep other teams out of position with one of their most deadly serving attacks in years.
At the net, Southington returns a strong core of juniors that battled their way into last year’s veteran lineup as underclassmen. Junior Caroline Barry was instrumental in last year’s Cinderella run which culminated with nine kills in her final game. Maryssa Romano will have tough shoes to fill on the outside, but she was second in kills (144) last season.
Sylwia Lewkowicz is a 6-foot-1 sophomore, and Heitz expects her to make an immediate impact in the middle. Junior hitters Danielle David, Julia Tinyszin, and Mankus provide a lot of choices up front as Heitz fiddles with his lineup.
Morgan McCarthy and Sam Lohneiss will share duties as setter with McCormick filling in as needed. With so much versatility, Heitz hasn’t ruled out two-setter attacks and an ever-changing lineup.
“I still haven’t decided on my starting lineup yet,” he said. “A lot of times with young teams that have talent, it can get very exciting. They’re fun to watch as the kids start to experience some things for the first time. They will have success for the first time, and emotionally it’s very exciting. It usually spills over to the sidelines and the fans.”
So come on out to the Southington gym this fall. The Lady Knights are young but expectations remain high. With new looks, new faces, a strong serving attack, and a host of hungry players, Heitz expects to put on a good show.
In other words, it’s business as usual.
“We don’t think about rebuilding,” he said. “We have a lot of new faces, but we’re always talking about ‘team.’ Our chemistry is going to be a key to our success, so we’ll be working on that a lot at practice. We have different girls in different grades. We have a lot of different personalities, but they’re working hard. From what I’ve seen, they are hungry. They want to establish their own legacy.”
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at email@example.com.