Reloading, not rebuilding: Knights have new faces, same high expectations

SP Morgan Raymond vs Greenwich 112715By BRIAN JENNINGS

STAFF WRITER

Groups were assembled at different stations throughout Southington High School’s gymnasium. Whether they were strength and conditioning drills or muscle and joint exercises with resistance bands, the Lady Knight volleyball team migrated from one end of the court to the other.

“That’s it girls,” said Southington coach Rich Heitz. “Make sure you take the time to do every station the right way.”

Heitz turned and faced the whiteboard like a general planning his campaign while his soldiers silently and precisely marched through their drills behind him.

The sounds of squeaking sneakers and barrage of volleyball missiles echoed through the gym.

“They’re a great bunch of kids who are getting along well,” the coach said. “They work and play hard. When they’re playing on the court, I think they communicate better than last year’s team.”

The Knights finished the 2015 regular season with an overall record of 16-2 and earned a share of the CCC Central Blue title with Glastonbury with a 7-1 divisional record. They scrambled to the semifinals in the CCC tournament and entered the Class LL tournament for the 13th-consecutive season.

In the state bracket, the Knights dispatched Simsbury and Ridgefield to reach the semifinals for the first time since 2012 before losing to Greenwich in the final four.

“We were fortunate enough to win a home game in five against a very good Ridgefield team,” said Heitz. “We didn’t pass our best against Greenwich, which prohibited us from doing the stuff that we were strong at. But it was a good season and a good bunch of kids. It’s something special to be said for them to get to the semifinals.”

It could be a challenge to make another final-four run since the Knights lost seven players to graduation, all of whom served starting roles on the varsity team, including Gatorade Player of the Year candidate Sylwia Lewkowicz.

Although the Knights graduated their entire starting rotation, returning just six varsity players from last year’s team, Heitz said that he still believes the Knights are going to surprise some folks. He called his team “one of the teams to beat” in the league.

“We don’t rebuild, we reload,” he said, citing Southington’s 16-2 junior varsity record last fall. “I don’t think it’s fair to kids to come back and say that we’re rebuilding. We have some bright kids who have very good volleyball acumen. They’re able to exercise what they need to in certain situations, in order to be successful.”

After coaching one of the strongest serving teams of his career last year, Heitz said that fans can expect another great year at the line. Serving should be a strength with a good number of jump servers.

“We may not be as strong a serving team as last year’s team, but we are still very formidable,” Heitz said. “That’s traditionally been one of our strengths, and I expect it out of this group as well.”

One of the biggest challenges will be replacing the size of last year’s starters. Southington will need to focus on effective passing to complement their offense and serving. Southington lost a pair of 6-footers and another at 5-foot-11.

“When you lose that, you have to be quicker and a little more vigilant in the defensive aspect of certain areas,” the coach said. “You also have to have good ball control. But we’re pretty quick and athletic, and I like what I’m seeing so far with respect to ball control.”

Senior co-captains Kelly Kritz (OH/MH) and Morgan Raymond (OH/L) will set the pace. Kritz is a versatile player who can play any of the three positions in the front row. Raymond will look to play a full rotation in her third year as an outside hitter for the Knights. Raymond finished last year with 319 serves received, 254 digs, 143 kills, and 11 total blocks, going 216-for-231 serving with 27 aces. They will be helped by senior veterans Erica Daigle (S) and Megan Mahon (RS, DS, S).

“They just complement each other very well, as the four seniors do,” said Heitz. “The four seniors all show leadership skills.”

Returning juniors include Nolyn Allen (DS/L/RS), Erica Bruno (OH/MH), Cassidy Herrick (DS), Sarah Myrick (OH/DS), Emily Tinyszin (MH), Julia Wells (DS/RS), Hannah Zelina (MH), and Steph Zera (S).

“The talent of this team is very tight, meaning that there’s not a lot of disparity from No. 1 to No. 12,” the coach said. “It’s going to force competitive practices. You can go to the bench with a kid who is capable of performing at the same level as someone who is in the game.”

Reflecting on the conference, Heitz stated that Glastonbury and Simsbury will be the top two teams to beat in the CCC Central Blue, as both teams are returning many players from very strong JV teams last year.

“The league graduated a lot of seniors this past season,” said Heitz. “Although Glastonbury, Simsbury, and Farmington all had strong JV programs, you can expect a solid crop of juniors to emerge and become some of the league’s top players this upcoming season.”

Instead of playing divisional teams twice during the regular season, the Knights will play one match against every team in the Central Region of the CCC (Blue and White Division).

Along with those 10 Central matches, the Knights are also scheduled to play the top three teams in the North and South Regions as well, totaling 16 CCC matches.

Heitz is entering his 16th year as head coach of the varsity program.

To comment on this story or to contact sports writer Brian Jennings, email him at bjennings@southingtonobserver.com.

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