Last year, the Lady Knight volleyball team went up 2-1 against No. 2 Amity and was three points away from advancing to the program’s second-straight semifinal appearance in the Class LL tournament with a hefty 22-7 advantage in the fourth set.
Then, the Spartans staged a comeback, went on an 18-1 run, took the third set, the match, and Southington’s postseason dreams. Almost a year later, and the Knights are still smarting.
“The loss to Amity last year is a learning opportunity for those that are returning,” said Southington Coach Rich Heitz. “Ten of our 12 kids that we have on varsity this year were on that state tournament roster, so they experienced that.”
The Knights finished last year’s regular season at 15-3 overall (8-1 home, 7-2 away), placing first in the CCC Central Blue Division as co-champions with Glastonbury with a 4-0 record. Prior to their collapse at Amity in the state tournament, they were on another postseason run.
Still, this year’s team will feature one of the more veteran groups that Heitz has had during his tenure at Southington, as the Knights are returning eight seniors. The only other time Heitz had eight seniors was in 2009 when the program won its first and only Class LL title.
“There is something to be said for having a veteran team,” the coach said. “The veterans pass along that experience to newcomers, and you build a culture.”
Not only is the team bringing back more upperclassmen this season, but it is attracting a high level of interest after this year’s tryouts recorded a program record of about 60 girls coming out for the team. From top to bottom, there is very little drop-off in talent, and Heitz said that he hasn’t had a team this deep…ever.
“If the kids have an enjoyable experience and have fun, they’re going to work hard to keep experiencing those moments,” said Heitz. “We got a great bunch of kids. It’s tough, but I think the kids have a good time, enjoy it, and work hard in the offseason, and then see the benefits during the regular season.”
Year after year, Southington girls volleyball is in the state tournament, and year after year, the Knights are one of the powerhouses in the state. There’s no reason why the Knights can’t continue their rich tradition.
But Heitz said that they have to keep things simple. To be successful in this sport, you have to have good serving and passing, and Heitz believes that they have both of those pieces in place.
“Height is an issue with this group,” the coach said. “But I think our ball control and passing is going to be pretty good.”
Serving, setting, and defense will serve as the strengths of the team this season. However, with the return of senior varsity starters Nolyn Allen (libero/ right-side hitter), Erica Bruno (middle/ outside), and Hannah Zelina (middle hitter), opponents shouldn’t slouch on the Knights up front. Zelina led the team in serving (76 aces) and blocking (57) last season.
Heitz has just the person to assist his returning outside hitters in senior Stephanie Zera. As a three-year varsity starter and the foundation of Southington’s net play, Zera has over 1,000 assists and finished with 674 last season.
“I think Steph’s one of the best setters that Southington’s had over the years,” said Heitz. “That’s one of our strengths.”
Although the Knights will look to be strong with hitting at the net offensively, the team might experience some limitations with blocking at the net defensively, due to height. But there are ways to combat lengthier opponents.
“Working really hard to keep the opponent out of system will help and limit the exposure,” the coach said. “You have to play aggressively, but I think we have a good defense from what I’ve seen so far.”
After a new realignment of the CCC, Southington is now in the West Colonial Division of the West Region and is scheduled to play Conard, Hall, and Northwest Catholic twice. The West Patriot Division features Avon, Farmington, Glastonbury, and Simsbury. The Knights will play NFA and Pomperaug as the only non-conference opponents on their schedule.
Team captains for the upcoming season have not been named yet.
Dominant on and off the court
Last year’s team was awarded the American Volleyball Coaches Association Team Academic Award for the 2016-17 academic year.
This was the 13th year Southington’s excellence in the classroom has been recognized by the American Volleyball Coaches Association.
“It’s something we strive for,” said Heitz. “I refer to it as the three-point triangle: academics, success on the court, and sportsmanship. There are awards that recognize all three, and hopefully one of these years, we hit all three of them.”
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