By John Goralski
Ridgefield funneled the offense to their 6-foot-5 center, and the Blue Knights countered with a make-shift block. The Tigers shifted the next pass through their outsides, and Southington’s blockers shifted back to meet the charge.
On Thursday, June 12, Southington’s big man sat helplessly with his ankle wrapped on the sidelines while his teammates worked to fill the hole in the state finals with their young depth and versatility.
After three contested games Ridgefield celebrated their tournament title, but it wasn’t enough to dampen Coach Lou Gianacopolos’ smile. After all, a Class L runner up finish on an inexperienced rebuilding year is nothing to frown about.
“This team has well-exceeded my expectations,” Gianacopolos said after the loss. “I didn’t know that we were going to go to the finals. I believed that, with the preparation we made, we were a final four team, but making it to the finals this year? I’m really proud of them.”
Sure, Ridgefield has young players in crucial spots, but the Knights had more questions than answers when the season began. Of their three starting seniors, none were starters as juniors. Most of the rest weren’t even dressed for varsity contests, but Southington rallied to a 19-4 record and came one victory from a second straight title.
“The only way that any athlete should hang their head after a match—whether they won or lost—is if they weren’t happy with the effort,” said the coach. “I wasn’t disappointed with our effort. I don’t think that anybody wasn’t trying 110 percent.”
Southington held their own against the top-seeded Tigers. Senior middle Griffin Jones attacked the Knights for 23 kills and five blocks. A senior and two juniors combined for 23 Ridgefield kills. Southington closed the gap to five points by the end of game one, pushed the second contest to 27 points, and lost the third game by two points.
Ridgefield scored a sweep, but it didn’t come easily as the Knights adjusted to the size differential by the middle of game two.
“We knew their middle was a big guy and contacts the ball over 10 feet,” Gianacopolos said. “Our smaller guys had to find a way to slow it down. We weren’t going to stop him, but we delayed our block a little bit, and that worked.”
Senior hitter Dan Connolly led the counterattack with 10 kills and a block. Nate Keen plugged up the middle, finishing with five kills and four blocks. Dan Normandin scored eight kills. Senior Dave Shaughnessy balanced the defense up front with three blocks, while senior setter Peter Masters distributed 21 assists to six different hitters at the net.
Southington rallied to a 25-20 loss in game one. The Knights battled back from a 19-13 deficit in game two to tie the game, 23-23, before losing by two. The final game of series was a see saw battle throughout before Ridgefield pulled away, 25-23.
“At points we did well, but not enough to set our defense at ease,” Gianacopolos said. “Ball control was pretty key. When we were trying to get the ball to the net to our setter, it was a little too hard or too tight. Peter struggled at the top of the net with some overpasses, but when we tried to make a correction we brought the ball back too far off the net. We were trying to find that ball control, but it was a major issue for us.”
Just making the finals was a testament to Southington’s depth because the injury to their middle happened one day before a semifinal match with Staples on Monday, June 9. Southington servers went 69-for-74 (.932) from the line. Blue Knight hitters combined for 41 kills and just 11 errors. The defense was nearly flawless with 35 digs, and the No. 3 Knights surged past the No. 2 Wreckers, 25-19, 25-16, and 25-19.
Normandin (12-for-12 serving) paced a 7-0 rally in game one to put that game out of reach. Tom DelBuono (27-for-28 serving) served long rallies in the second and third game to put those contests out of reach.
Shaughnessy anchored the Knights at the net with 13 kills and two blocks. Connolly scored eight kills with 10 digs. Masters distributed 39 assists, and Normandin finished with eight kills and seven digs.
“We knew that Grevers (11 kills) and Ian Grimes (7 kills) were going to be huge in their offense. We limited their swings, and we hit our spots,” Gianacopolos said. “We blocked well and put intelligence on the court at all times. We made smart, intelligent swings when we had to, and we were aggressive when they were there.”
With the loss in the finals, Southington ended their season with a 19-4 record. Three of their losses came against Class M champion Newington. The other one came in the Class L finals.
Not bad for a rebuilding year.
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