All for one, one for all; Lady Knights are looking for mental toughness

By John Goralski
Sports Writer
The sophomores took their lumps last fall. The juniors were stretched to their limits against a tough conference schedule. The Lady Knight volleyball players had to fight for everything they had last season as they navigated a tough schedule with just one senior in their lineup.
Last year was all about the youth and the future. This fall is all about the present.
“We knew that last year would be a development opportunity for a lot of them, and we knew that it was going to be a learning process,” said Lady Knight coach Rich Heitz. “We knew we’d take our lumps here and there, but 14-7 was still a good regular season. There were a few games that we dropped that we shouldn’t have, but I think the mental aspect of our youth probably played an effect in it.”
Now those sophomores are upperclassmen. The juniors return as battle-hardened seniors. While most teams spent their preseason workouts trying to determine their opening day roster, the Lady Knights were fine tuning intangibles and working on their chemistry.
Heitz isn’t worried about kills, passing, or digs. He isn’t focused on serving or strategy. The 12-year veteran coach is focused on just one thing: toughness. As his team gears up for another run at a state title, toughness might be the only thing that matters.
“When you’re returning 11 out of 12 of your starting lineup, and everybody’s done their homework in the off-season, you expect to come back a lot stronger,” he said. “It’s going to come down to our mental toughness, but that’s something that we’re working on as a team. I think we’ve got some really good skills, so we just have to be mentally tough if we want to compete.”
If the preseason is any indication, the Lady Knights are up to the task. At an elite play day on Cape Cod, the Lady Knights proved themselves a match for some of the best teams in the region. They wrestled toe-to-toe with potential state champions like Medway High School (MA) and Hendrick Hudson (NY). They matched perennial powers like Darien (CT) and tested themselves against the undisputed queens of the New England in a tough match against Barnstable (MA).
“We took some lumps from Barnstable, but we played some really good teams from New England and competed,” said Heitz. “I was so pleased with the way that they played at the cape. We went against teams that we’ve never had good experiences against, and we were competitive. We saw some of the best teams in New England, and we played them tough.”
To be successful, it will take a concerted effort. The passes will have to be precise. The blocks will need to be perfect. Outside hitters, setters, and servers will all have to play their part. It’s an all-for-one and one-for-all approach that Heitz has fostered in the preseason. That’s one reason why this team has no captains. Everyone’s going to have to do her part if the Lady Knights are going to reach their potential.
“Part of coaching is developing leadership skills, and this will give me the opportunity to work with all of my seniors,” said Heitz. “I think you’ll see all of them in some sort of leadership capacity. I want to give them all an opportunity to work on their leadership skills. It’s a great bunch of girls, and they get along really well.”
Southington has experience at every position. Caroline Barry was an all-conference hitter last year, and she returns to the outside. Maryssa Romano led the team with 206 kills last fall, and she will join Barry on the corners of the net. Emily Mankus and Kelsea Allen provide depth on the outsides with Michelle Stublarec on the right side.
Sylwia Lewkowicz, Julia Tinyszin, Danielle David and Allen will anchor the middle, so Southington should be able to hold their own at the net.
“Our outsides may be a little bit undersized compared to other teams, but they can all put a pretty good lick on the ball,” said Heitz. “Our blocking should be a whole lot better than past years, but we still have to work on our defense. We have a lot of kids playing a lot of different positions during the club season, so we’re trying to get them all on the same page.”
Southington’s only loss was former libero, Allison McCormick, and her passing will need to be replaced. McCormick led last year’s defense with almost 400 digs, but Heitz has a number of girls ready to step in to that defensive role. Kateri Downs and Nicole Groll are both vying for that spot, but Mankus has proven to be a strong defender, too. The biggest question as the season approaches is what player will don the off-colored jersey in the back row.
“We’re still battling it out,” said Heitz. “Obviously if someone comes out as a better passer we want them out for six rotations rather than three. Right now, Romano has actually been our best serve receive passer.”
Even at quarterback, Southington has depth. Senior setter Morgan McCarthy led the Knights with 554 assists last fall, but junior setter Samantha Lohneiss could step in at any time. During preseason workouts, Lohneiss has proven to be one of the team’s best setters.
No matter who gets the starting nod, Southington will be tested right out of the gates. They open the season with a conference road meet at Conard. In mid-September, Southington will face a surge of top teams with a five-game stretch against Farmington, Hall, Bristol Eastern, Simsbury, and Maloney.
“Right now, I’m just focused on Conard,” said Heitz. “The good competition comes early this year, and I think that will test us. We’re also going to go back up to Springfield for the Hall of Fame Classic again, and we’re going to finish the year at Norwich Free Academy. They probably play in the toughest league in the state.”
Will this be the year that Southington regains its perch atop the CCC West standings? That will depend upon those intangibles. Class L runner up Farmington returns most of their lineup. Simsbury and NW Catholic should continue to pose challenges as up-and-coming programs.
“The CCC West is loaded with strong talent within the senior class,” said Heitz. “Farmington returned pretty much everyone, so they might be the best team in the area, if not, the state. When you have teams that good, a lot depends on the little things. That’s why we’re focusing on the mental toughness this year.”
So strap in and enjoy the ride.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@southingtonobserver.com.

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