Playing in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association girls volleyball championships is a ball. Frank Massa strongly recommends it.
Of course, the trick is getting there. Massa should know. His Mattituck team made its sixth appearance (and first since 2015) in the state semifinals last year.
Massa, in his 33rd year coaching the team, has an impressive résumé. He guided the Tuckers (16-2) to their sixth county title in nine years, seventh in 16 years and first since 2015. Last year they won their first league title in 14 years and reached the playoffs for a 16th straight year.
Massa sees this as yet “another chance to raise a banner, to compete, to have fun.”
The defending Long Island Class C champions are still stocked with talent, such as seniors Viki Harkin, Jordan Osler and Miranda Hedges.
The high-flying Harkin is a tremendous asset. The senior middle hitter made the All-State Tournament first team and was the Suffolk County League VIII Player of the Year.
“We controlled those games when she was pounding the ball,” said Massa.
But if you think all Harkin does is hammer the ball, think again. The four-year varsity player “also wins points using her head,” Massa said. “If the set’s not a real good hittable ball, she still has a chance to win points by putting the ball in places where nobody is.”
Osler, best known for her play as a libero, made the All-State Tournament second team and was the League VIII Defensive Player of the Year. She has been moved to outside hitter because Massa considers her one of the team’s better hitters.
“She’s moving from her natural position to outside,” he said. “She has a good swing. She’s very athletic. Her defense is always going to be solid and offensively, I think she’s going to help us out tremendously.”
Mattituck has an All-League setter in Hedges. In addition, senior middle hitter Charlotte Keil, senior outside hitter Rylie Skrezec and junior setter Ashley Young were starters last season.
Massa said he doesn’t put freshmen or sophomores on his team unless they start. That bodes well for sophomore Bridget Ryan and freshman Sage Foster, both listed as right-side hitters.
Three senior defensive specialists — Hayden Kitz, Julia Schimpf and Veronica Pugliese — help with the passing. Also back are outside hitter Jessica Mazzeo and middle hitter Kathryn Thompson. The new additions are middle hitter Emily Chew, outside hitters Renee Depinto and Emma Olsen, setter Sam McNamara and defensive specialist Rylie Rittberg.
Mattituck has to be considered the League VIII favorite, but Massa knows that isn’t enough to return to Glens Falls for the state tournament.
“A lot of the other teams in the league have gotten better, so hopefully we can get better or will get better,” he said. “I think they’re capable of repeating what they did last year, but being capable of doing it and doing it are two different things.”
Massa sounded anxious to see what his team can do.
“Another season,” he said. “Let’s get it going.”
Things are looking up on multiple fronts for Greenport/Southold (4-9). First, 40 players are in the program, enough so that not one but two junior varsity teams will be dressed. The varsity team, meanwhile, is loaded with upperclassmen, including 10 seniors. Sure, three of those seniors are first-time players, but still, that’s a lot of seniors.
“And we’ve got a ton of juniors,” added coach Mike Gunther.
After going 0-21 the previous two years, Greenport made a leap forward last season when it fell one win shy of a playoff spot. It’s expected that the team will progress further this year with the presence of 10 returning players, all of whom started at one point or another and got plenty of playing experience in 2018.
“I just want to win,” said Gunther.
Greenport has players who picked up honors, too. Senior setter, co-captain and four-year varsity player Liz Jernick was an All-Conference choice. Senior outside hitter Jessica Mele made All-League. Julia Jaklevic, a junior defensive specialist and outside hitter, was the League VIII Rookie of the Year.
Gunther said that in addition to Jernick’s skill, “she’s physically strong. She’s smart. She’s willing to learn, and she really wants to do better for her teammates.”
Like Jernick, Mele played club ball. “She’s hungry and she’s vocal,” said Gunther.
As for Jaklevic, “She’s like a beach player,” Gunther said. “She can anticipate well and she’s not going to overpower you in the game, but she’s going to control the ball and get it back over the net enough times for you to make a mistake.”
Gunther raved about the court coverage provided by junior outside hitter Courtney Cocheo. “She’s everywhere, it seems,” he said. “When someone’s fired up, a fire fires up other fires.”
Junior middle hitter Silvia Rackwitz, senior setter Rhian Tramontana and senior middle hitter Isabelle Higgins are expected to be in the starting lineup.
The Porters can also draw from veterans like junior setter Gabby Contreras, senior defensive specialist and co-captain Andrea Palencia and senior outside hitter and serving specialist Amanda Bardsley.
Senior defensive specialists Melody Silie and YaoYao Reilly are both first-time players as is senior outside hitter Emily Newman. Sophomore middle hitter Sydney Heitmann and senior setter Liz Drum are also new to the team.
As was the case last season, Greenport is once again not expected to use a libero since it doesn’t fit into the team’s scheme. That’s unusual in modern volleyball, and a bit old school. To that Gunther replied: “Why not? I’m old.”
Gunther said the idea of competing for positions on his team germinated last year. “This year it’s a driving force,” he said.
Last year someone told Gunther that his players were too nice.
“They’re not too nice this year,” he said. “They are sweethearts, without a doubt, but on the court, they’re more aggressive.”
Photo caption: Mattituck middle hitter Viki Harkin was the League VIII Player of the Year in 2018. (Credit: Garret Meade, file)