The stakes were high for both high school girls volleyball teams. For Port Jefferson, it was a must-win match. For Greenport/Southold, it was more like a want-to-win deal — with an extra incentive.
Visiting Greenport walked away with the best result possible Monday. Not only did the Porters clinch their first playoff berth since 2015 with their three-set win over Port Jefferson, but they avoided a must-win scenario of their own for their final regular-season match at home to Ross School on Wednesday. By avoiding a loss Monday, it also appears as if Greenport dodged a Suffolk County Class C semifinal match against defending Long Island champion and two-time League VIII champion Mattituck. That’s no small motivation.
As it appears now, three Suffolk Class C teams will be listed when the playoff brackets are released, with Greenport likely to face Pierson/Bridgehampton in an outbracket match, with Mattituck awaiting the winner.
But what really mattered to the Porters in the moments after their 25-12, 25-11, 25-20 victory was that they finally had a postseason to look forward to.
“It’s crazy,” said outside hitter Jess Mele, one of Greenport’s 10 seniors who captains the team along with setter Liz Jernick and defensive specialist Andrea Palencia. “Just to say that I made it to playoffs my senior year is just the greatest thing ever because we’ve been wanting this for the past few years and I think it really helps that we have an older team and we’re all so experienced. As seniors, we all just really wanted playoffs.”
Greenport coach Mike Gunther said, “I’ve been wanting them to go to the playoffs since they were freshmen because this is an experience every athlete should have.”
The Porters (6-7, 6-5) came painfully close to qualifying for the playoffs last year, but a season-ending loss to Center Moriches spoiled that as they fell one win short. They didn’t want that disappointment again.
“We started earning it last year on that day we didn’t get in,” said Gunther.
Open gyms and weightlifting sessions over the summer helped make the Porters better and stronger while another year of maturity made them smarter.
Gunther said he didn’t get into the specific implications of the Port Jefferson match with his players beforehand, but the significance of it all was known to Jernick. “It was our ticket to the playoffs,” she said. “I knew that if we won this game we would make it to playoffs, and then if we lost this game, Wednesday’s it. Like that’s the final game, and if we lose, we’re not going in, so it was kind of a lot of pressure.”
Not that one could tell by the first two sets.
The loud student section was itching to cheer for Port Jefferson, but Greenport didn’t give them much to cheer about in the first two sets as the Porters came out strong. “The first two sets were clinical,” Gunther said. “That’s the way I saw it. We were bump, set, spike. We had them back on their heels. They couldn’t generate an offense.”
Mele, who finished with 14 digs, 13 kills and one service ace, said she remarked to Gunther during the second set that “this is not even a workout. I need something to do.”
The Porters had a lot more to do in the third set as Port Jefferson (5-7, 5-7) jumped out to a 15-8 lead, giving their fans something to shout about. Things were getting dicey for Greenport as the volume in the gym was turned up.
“In the third [set], we got the energy going because we knew we had to push back because they were fighting for every point,” said Jernick, who totaled 15 assists, six aces, four kills and three digs. “There was so much noise coming from the crowd and we just needed to block that out. We just needed to get into our own heads because they were getting into our heads.”
Greenport tied the set at 18-18 on a Mele kill before going ahead for good when Port Jefferson hit a ball into the net. They were all part of the Porters’ closing 9-2 run.
“It was crucial,” Courtney Cocheo (10 kills, nine digs) said of the win.
Gunther said: “I saw the talent on this team. They were this talented last year, but they were scared. The Shelter Island coach said, ‘Your girls are too nice.’ And they were too nice, so we worked on getting ourselves an edge. They’re a very nice group of girls, but they have an edge now and it’s taken a while to convince them that they deserve to win, and now they know it.”
Photo caption: Greenport/Southold players rejoice after beating Port Jefferson and qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2015. (Credit: Bob Liepa)