By John Goralski
This fall, the Lady Knights have been attacking the net and hitting the books as Coach Rich Heitz tries to focus on the ‘student’ part of student-athlete. Pat Riley’s book, The Winner Within, has served as assigned reading. Practices have become study halls and games are tests leading up to the final exam.
Each week, his players delve into chapters of the book, and it’s already starting to pay off with his young team.
“Each chapter of that book has a lesson in competition and sports,” said the coach, “and they’re building on it each week.”
It’s already starting to pay off for his up-and-coming team. On Monday, Sept. 30, the Knights capped their first month of play with their first shutout of the season.
As a team, the girls rallied for 33 kills with just 11 errors at the net. They served up 20 aces in a three-game series and the errors in the back row were kept to single digits. As a group, the Knights seemed to come together as a team, and it resulted in an easy 3-0 win with a 25-20 victory followed by a pair of 25-13 wins.
The book talks about an innocent climb as the team builds energy, and another chapter deals with the ‘disease of me.’ Southington passed both tests.
“One of our goals tonight was to focus on the effort and to let the outcome happen by itself,” said Heitz. “I think it’s important that we played consistent for three sets. We’ve really been cutting down on errors, and I’m seeing some really nice things out of our sophomores. This was a really nice match to get them some hard-nosed play in certain positions.”
Maryssa Romano (9 kills) and Caroline Barry (8 kills) led the Knights at the net, but Sylwia Lewkowicz (7 kills) and Kelsea Allen (3 kills) added to the depth. Barry led servers with five aces. Morgan McCarthy distributed 24 assists, and Allison McCormick anchored the back row with five digs.
“I am happy right now,” said Heitz. “We saw nice things from Kelsey and Sylwia and Caroline. Maryssa had a great night, and that gave me some comfort that we can look to those younger kids a little more. Kelsey had a great hit down the line, and that’s the stuff I’ve sort of envisioned from her next year and the year after. To see her get that in her sophomore year is really special—for her and for us.”
The game also marked the annual Dig Pink contest to raise funds for breast cancer awareness and research. Heitz used the game to show what the truly important things are, like Reilly points out in Chapter 3 of his book.
“High school sports is about developing life skills and giving them an understanding of what’s it’s like in the real world, and this is important to that growth and development process,” he said. “We have to do things like this. We try to do a lot of bonding and working together off the court. It’s affected a lot of people in our program in recent years, and it’s a nice evening to step back and consider the more meaningful things in life while we raise some funds for a worthwhile cause.”
Two days later, Southington scored a breakthrough like Riley describes in Chapter 6. Earlier this season, Conard stole one game of the series when Southington entered the game flat. On Wednesday, Oct. 2, the Knights hit the ground running and cruised to a 3-0 victory.
Kateri Downes served seven aces, and the team cruised to their second sweep of the season, 25-16, 25-18, and 25-22. That proves that the Knights have turned the corner.
“We made a lot of unforced errors the first time, but I think we’re doing a lot better,” said Heitz. “I think our young kids played well tonight. Michelle Stublarec [6 kills] had a really nice game. I think that Caroline Barry [6 aces, 7 kills] had a really nice game. We’re going to just keep on growing.”
Even the 3-0 loss to Bristol Eastern on Friday could be referred back to the book. The powerhouse Bristol team could be considered a ‘thunderbolt,’ described by Riley as a problem that is part of life.
“There was a chapter about water rafting. If you fall out of the raft, you can still help in your own rescue,” said Heitz. “People can make mistakes and get down on themselves. We have to help pick ourselves up, and that’s part of our growth process. They have to learn to shake it off and move on. If they dwell on it, it’s just going to build like rapids.”
There were positives in the loss. Barry finished with eight kills. Romano had seven digs, and McCormick finished with six digs. Southington lost two tight games and one lopsided contest, but Heitz was focused on the strengths.
“I was very happy with the way we played in the first set, and from the seventh point on in the second set, and the first 16 points of the third set,” he said. “Then, we had these two huge momentum swings. We were playing great. We had an error, and we dwelt on it. I think we grew tonight, and I think that’s the main thing.”
Will the homework pay off? Heitz can’t wait to find out.
By John Goralski