By BRIAN JENNINGS
Of their three state championship appearances, the girl’s volleyball team won their only title in 2009. The last time the Lady Knights made a state championship appearance was 2011, but every year they have been inching closer to the ultimate goal.
The Knights finished last season with a 15-4 regular season record (11-3 in division) and a third-place finish in the CCC West. They entered the conference tournament as the No.7-seed, but were defeated by No.2-seed Farmington, 3-0. The Knights then entered the Class LL tournament as the No.8-seed, advancing to the quarterfinals before falling to top seeded Cheshire, 3-0.
The Knights graduated six seniors, including Maryssa Romano (all-conference), Morgan McCarthy (all-conference), Caroline Barry, and Kateri Downes.
Romano led the team in kills (227) and was second in digs (186) and serves received (331). McCarthy led the team in assists (530). Barry was third in kills (139) and total blocks (25). Downes was second in aces (39) and was third in digs (142) and serves received (167).
“To a certain extent, we’re reloading in a lot of positions,” said Southington coach Rich Heitz. “Some of the seniors here have had experience for two years. Hopefully, we can build on any success that we had on the court last year.”
As far as expectations go for the upcoming season, nothing has changed. Heitz said that he expects his team to compete, as they do year after year.
Heitz is entering his 15th year as head coach of the Knights, but out of all the years he has been coach, there is something different, something special about this particular group of athletes.
“I think we’ve got the potential for the strongest team that we’ve had here in a number of years,” said Heitz. “We have a lot of strong servers coming back. I expect our ball control passing to be a little bit stronger. We’re returning a lot of key pieces to the team.”
Heitz said that he is seeing this team play at a much faster pace than they played at last year, especially in the strength of their setting.
“I can say that at the first practice, some of the servicing passing was significantly stronger than it was the last couple years,” said Heitz. “It made them play a lot quicker than what we have played.”
Senior Sylwia Lewkowicz is the only all-conference player returning to the team. The 6’1” middle hitter led the team in blocks (63) and hitting efficiency (.349) and finished second in kills (154). Heitz said that Lewkowicz will be continue to be a big part of the Knights’ offense as she returns to the middle.
Other key returning players include seniors Kelsea Allen, Nicole Groll, Samantha Lohneiss, Emily Mankus, Michelle Stublarec, and Lindsey Witte. Allen and Lohneiss were named as the team captains for the 2015 season.
“With the support of their teammates, we can, once again, be poised for another very successful season,” said the coach. “In order to accomplish this, however, we will need everyone to exercise sound leadership and commitment to the team, as well as commitment to each other.”
Heitz said that serving is the biggest strength for his offence, but he thinks that his team is more well-rounded than they were last season. The Knights’ offense also looks promising with the return of Stublarec and Allen to the front court.
Stublarec was fourth in kills (93), while Allen was fifth (79). Both will play a major role in the team’s attack. Allen is a two-year starter and was also a force to be reckoned with in front of the net, second on the team in total blocks (30). Last year, Stublarec played as a middle hitter on the right side, but she will transfer from the right side, where she has been playing for the past two seasons, to an outside hitter.
Groll had the magic touch last season and will be vital to serving the ball behind the line, as she led the team in aces (50). Mankus was third in aces (38) and Witte was fifth (27). Groll was the team’s libero last season and returns to anchor the defense again. Witte is a strong server, and will look to hold down the hitter position on the right side. Mankus returns as a versatile player, who can play the roles of an outside hitter defensive specialist. She also a strong server.
Groll showed off her defensive skills by preventing spikes from opposing attacks, as she led the team in digs (238). Mankus was fourth in digs (100). Groll also led the team in serves received (383). Mankus was fifth in serves received (110).
McCarthy might have dished out a hefty load of passes, but Lohneiss knows how to set up her teammates as well. She is a three-year varsity setter, who finished second on the team in assists (116). She also has a strong serve.
Another strength that comes to this year’s team is depth and Heitz said he is still determining the positions of his players.
“This is probably the deepest team that I’ve ever had here,” said Heitz. “When you can go 12 to 13 deep, it’s probably my deepest team, from top to bottom. There are definitely kids that can be in the lineup or produce on any given night. They’re competing for playing time.”
Juniors Morgan Raymond, Megan Mahon, Kelly Kritz, and sophomores Sarah Myrick and Stephanie Zera were junior varsity players last year, but all of them have made the transition to varsity. Raymond is an athletic player, who will look to compete for one of the outside hitter positions. Zera will gain plenty of experience as a setter in the varsity lineup.
If there are any weaknesses to this year’s team, Heitz said that his girls just have to make sure that they can pass well.
“That’s what we’ve been working on in practice,” said Heitz. “Passing is such a big aspect. We have to make sure we can be a strong enough passing team. We’re going to have two different players hitting on the outside this year, but I’m fully comfortable that they’ll get there.”
After the major realignment of the Central Connecticut Conference was announced in October of last year, the girl’s volleyball divisions were reconstructed to the North, Central, and South Regions, with a Blue and White Division within each region. Southington is in the Blue Division of the Central Region, along with Conard, Hall, Glastonbury, and Simsbury, while the White Division has Avon, Bulkeley, Farmington, Northwest Catholic, Weaver, and Windsor.
“I don’t like losing Farmington,” said Heitz. “I really wanted to keep Farmington, but we at least get to play them once. When I look at the six divisions, I honestly think that we have the strongest division of the six, from top to bottom. I also think that the CCC West, as it left last year, was the strongest division in the conference, from top to bottom.”
The Blue Division of the North Region has East Catholic, East Hartford, Hartford Public, South Windsor, and Manchester, while the White Division has Bloomfield, E.O. Smith, Fermi, RHAM, Rockville, and Tolland. The Blue Division of the South Region has Bristol Central, Bristol Eastern, New Britain, Newington, and Wethersfield, while the White Division has Berlin, Maloney, Middletown, Plainville, Platt, and Rocky Hill.
“Some of the crossover games are going to be teams that we haven’t played in 12 or 15 years, like Weaver, Windsor, and Bulkeley,” said Heitz. “We do have two, full-day tournaments that we’re going to play, where we will hopefully play against some really good competition that will help prepare us for the postseason.”
To comment on this story or to email sports writer Brian Jennings, email him at BJennings@SouthingtonObserver.com.