By John Goralski
Trailing by four points in the final game of the series, Coach Lou Gianacopolos signaled for his second timeout. His volleyball team gathered on the court, but Gianacopolos slumped into his chair with the rest of his coaches. The boys were left to talk amongst themselves.
Gianacopolos wasn’t giving up on his team. He wasn’t panicked by his team’s predicament despite an early 2-0 lead. Sure, his team might drop from the unbeaten ranks, but Gianacopolos has never been focused on undefeated seasons.
He was looking for leadership and watching his young team grow up on the court.
“This showed me that our guys are still young,” said the coach. “Even though they are competing at a high varsity level, I still have to remember that this is their first time on this big stage. Last year they had the ability to be subbed out. This year, they are the guys…I think they are going to do well.”
Southington never regained the lead. Newington managed to hold onto the four point lead to clinch the best-of-five series. The Knights dropped to 6-1 with their first loss of the season, but Gianacopolos saw the leadership and focus that he was looking for.
Moments after the loss, he walked by one of his senior captains. “I can’t wait to see Enfield,” he growled. “They aren’t going to score five points on us.”
“This is a learning experience because all these guys are first time starters in varsity positions,” said the coach. “I think they know now what’s at stake even if you’re up by two.”
Don’t worry. Southington will get another shot at Newington in mid-May. They are still in contention for the conference title, and the Class M Indians will be no obstacle once the postseason comes. Gianacopolos was using this rivalry as a measuring stick since his Knights have few opportunities to face a competitive team.
Losing isn’t a problem.
“I’m not disappointed in our players or the outcome,” he said. “We knew what we were going to be playing against, so there isn’t even a little bit of disappointment. Great volleyball is hard to come by, and I would play this match every day of the week.”
In the first two games, Southington found ways to win. The first game was a see-saw battle, but the Knights held on to win, 25-22. In the second game Southington fell behind by eight points, but rallied back to win, 25-22.
Newington countered with a 25-21 win in game three. The Indians held off a late rally in game four to win, 25-22. Southington led early in the final game, but Newington came back for a 15-11 win to clinch the series.
“Getting competition is key. This is how we prepare for the playoffs,” said the coach. “At the beginning of game three, I asked them what 2-0 meant to them. Of course, they told me that they still had to work hard. Now, they know that it can be taken away.”
Gianacopolos said that he was pleased with his team’s efforts. Dan Connolly attacked the net for 12 kills and anchored the defense with 15 digs. Adam Brush anchored the middle with 11 kills and eight blocks. Peter Masters directed the offense with 42 assists, while David Shaughnessy (11 kills), Nate Keen (6 kills), and Tom DelBuono (13 digs) contributed to the balanced attack.
The difference was consistency. Newington got stronger as the series went on, and they began to exploit Southington’s small mistakes.
“There were times in games one and two where we put up a ball that was a medium level set, but we were still aggressive at it,” said the coach. “In games three, four, and five, we got the same pass but had a little bit more uncertainty. We would roll the ball, hit the ball, or tip the ball over easily, and that really limited our opportunity to get an aggressive ball.”
So how would his team respond? With two lopsided blowouts.
On Wednesday, Southington cruised past Enfield, 3-0. Brush finished with 11 kills. Masters scored 24 assists. Mark Horanzy had five aces, and Shaughnessy had four. Enfield was in the Class M finals last year, but the Knights won easily, 25-11, 25-12, and 25-8.
“We came in and physically out-matched them. We made a few changes, tried a few things, and we controlled the tempo of the match,” said the coach. “We were just looking for good fundamental play, but we needed a mental reset. This allowed that.”
The momentum carried into Friday with a 3-0 win at Simsbury. Shaugnessy and Connolly (7 digs) had seven kills apiece. Masters had 25 assists. Horanzy finished with six digs, and Southington won easily, 25-10, 25-23, and 25-16.
Gianacopolos didn’t dwell on the loss. He barely talked about it in practice. Now, it’s time to put it behind them.
“I think the kids were expecting me to be a little more harsh or stern,” he said. “I just thought it was a good learning experience for me to learn about my players, and it was also an experience for them. None of these boys have played in a game like this before. If it wasn’t for the Newington match, I wouldn’t have learned what I did about my team. They showed me how I need to coach them.”
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By John Goralski