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Setting, Passing Are Keys For Lady Rams
Cheshire High School girls’ volleyball head coach Sue Bavone feels a setter is comparable to the quarterback of a football team. Both positions touch the ball more than anyone else and orchestrate offenses.
According to Bavone, 2012 graduate Gina Buzzelli filled that role and more in starting the last three seasons for her program. Buzzelli recorded 656 assists, 48 kills, 67 service aces, 60 digs, and 17 blocks last fall. Out 1,959 sets, she had only 58 errors.
“Gina called to tell me that she is the strongest player weight-lifting on her team (Trinity College) as a freshman,” said Bavone. “She was the best all-around setter we’ve had in that there wasn’t a weakness in her game.”
While losing her versatile package this fall, Cheshire is planning a combined effort to keep the program rolling. Junior Kathleen Hastie and sophomore Sarah Rodgers are currently both working at setter, as the Lady Rams prepare for Wednesday’s opener (5:15 p.m.) at Joseph Foran.
“Sarah has good hands and is strong defensively. Kathleen has good size, so she can also hit and block, as well as set,” explained Bavone. “We’ll probably play a 6-2 (format) with two setters to start the season. We have a potentially strong hitting team if we can be consistent in our setting and passing. That is going to be the key to our season.”
Bavone knew this season would have more questions than last year when Cheshire had eight seniors. For the third time in Bavone’s 17 years, the Lady Rams went unbeaten in the 2011 regular season. The senior class enjoyed their fourth straight Housatonic Division title (8-0) and led the girls to the school’s eighth Southern Connecticut Conference Tournament crown, sweeping Guilford 3-0.
“That was a great accomplishment,” stated senior middle hitter Amanda Palladino, who had 187 kills and 62 blocks. “We looked up to those girls.”
CHS reached 23-0 until falling to Newtown in the Class LL semifinals. It was the second year in a row they were swept in the semis by the eventual champion.
Despite ending last year two wins short of a state title, Bavone points out that Cheshire was only team from 2010 to return to the Final Four. They were seeded second last fall, but still had to eliminate Stamford (3-1) and outlast Bristol Eastern (3-2).
“I take pride in consistency. Cheshire volleyball always has to be in the conversation for who is the best team in the state. Being the only team back in the semifinals shows we have a good program,” Bavone explained. “(Former CHS Athletic Director) Wayne Candela once told me that we don’t rebuild at Cheshire High School. We reload.”
The coaching staff has used scrimmages to build chemistry within an inexperienced varsity group. Palladino, a captain with classmate Meredith Bryden, and Brittney Gunneson are the only starters back from last season. Sarah Crooker, along with Norwegian transfer Lisa Walle, round out a small group of seniors.
“It is a lot different,” reflected Bryden. “We have the opportunity to grow together on the court. We’re excited about the season.”
Palladino recalls feeling nervous entering what was a senior-laden lineup last fall.
“Those girls had played together for so long, but they made me feel like part of the family,” explained Palladino.
She blossomed next to Brittney‘s sister Kelly, a four-year member of the varsity team. Kelly Gunneson (Southern Connecticut State University) was moved into the middle at the end of her sophomore year, becoming the kill and block leader in each of the last two seasons. She recorded 278 kills with just 42 hitting errors in 2011, supplying 71 blocks. Buzzelli joined her as All-Class LL Second Team and team Offensive Player of the Year.
“Gina was exceptional at serving the middle. That is why we had so much success there,” said Bavone.
Chavoya, Kelly Gunneson, and Buzzelli were selected All-Housatonic.
“They gave us consistency and stability. In Kerry and Gina, we also lost great captains,” reflected Bavone.
They all excelled in their last home match with Bristol Eastern. Chavoya had a career-high 29 digs and Buzzelli helped Palladino and Kelly Gunneson both record a career-best 23 kills. Palladino‘s growth was recognized through the Most Improved Award.
“I hope I can contribute as much as Kelly did. She taught me a lot,” stated Palladino.
Wanting to improve for her final season as a captain, Palladino chose for the first time to keep playing in the off-season. She joined the Husky Junior Volleyball Club in which her 17-U team qualified for the 33rd USA Girls‘ Volleyball Junior Nationals (June 28-July 7) in Columbus, Ohio.
“It was a great experience,” recalled Palladino. “Being around volleyball helped me understand the game more and keep my skills up.”
Bavone, who felt Palladino hit tentatively at times last year, is seeing her lead by example now.
“I’m proud of her because she has worked very hard,” said Bavone. “Amanda is not the most vocal person, but she is passionate and wants the team to do well.”
Brittney Gunneson, who had the opportunity to play next to her sister last season, returns experience on the right side. She put down 37 kills last year.
Without graduates Abby Dorman (Most Versatile Award; 109 kills) and Mackenzie Abelli (98 kills; hit clinched SCC title), the junior class adds options up front. Eryn Dorsey is the third sister to play for Bavone. Elyse (2005 graduate) and Taylor (2009) Dorsey were setters and senior captains.
“Eryn started subbing in last year when Abby reached the back row. It worked well because Abby was playing all around and we felt she could use a breather,” said Bavone. “Eryn could play right side or outside hitter.”
Classmates Rebecca Ligi and Evan Whalen are vying to expand their roles on varsity this year.
“We have more hitters than positions on the court. I think healthy competition is going to make us better,” stated Bavone. “It’s never a bad thing to push each other. We don’t give spots in this program without working for them.”
Walle is a wild card this year. A member of her national team in Norway, she brings height (six feet) and hard hitting. Last year’s foreign exchange student, Kristine Hoy, graduated.
“In Norway, Lisa doesn‘t take gym class. She does club sports and will get credit for them by playing here,” stated Bavone.
Service is another way that Cheshire traditionally puts opposing defenses on their heels. Bavone added that Hastie has been working on a jump serve.
“The serving is strong again. We need to take advantage of it,” said Bavone.
Offensive depth, along with graduation losses, led to Bryden making a position change. Instead of hitting like in previous years, she has moved to the back row.
“I’m happy with Meredith as a captain. She will have the pulse of the team,” explained Bavone. “Meredith has varsity experience as a serving sub last year.”
“The coaches teach us all the skills, so I have experience passing,” stated Bryden. “I’ll do whatever I can to help the team.”
As a defensive coach, Bavone was proud of the effort her team showed last season. Chavoya, a two-year starting libero and dig leader in that span, and fellow graduate Sarah Duwenhoegger (84 digs) shared Defensive Player of the Year. Chavoya (197 digs) was the SCC Tournament Most Outstanding Player.
“Kerry and Sarah were not only athletic, but also great leaders. They didn’t want the ball to hit the floor,” explained Bavone.
Claire Duffy (65 digs) was another graduate who had the ability to pass and hit the ball.
“It is tough to lose what they gave us, but we spend a lot of time as coaches finding ways to compensate for what we don‘t have back. We maximize strengths and hide weaknesses. My strength (coaching wise) is defense and passing anyway, so I feel comfortable putting these girls in positions where they can be successful.”
Crooker and junior Phoebe Carmichael are returning upperclassman alongside Bryden in the back row.
“Sarah is a great kid who works hard. I’m seeing more confidence in her,” stated Bavone. “Phoebe might be our libero. We’ll see how it plays out.”
Sophomores Jillian Haberli, Jill Howard, and Maria Buzzelli are adding leadership on junior varsity at the start of the season. The trio, who all saw varsity action as freshmen, will play at both levels this year. Buzzelli, Gina’s sister, was used defensively in key minutes, including the Class LL Tournament. Haberli, like Palladino, attended summer nationals with the 15-U Huskies. Howard, another hitter, is the younger sister of Nate Howard, a 2012 CHS graduate who led the boys’ volleyball program to 45 straight wins in the last two years.
“We have 11 freshmen this year, so having older girls to help them is necessary,” stated Bavone. “(Assistant) Jared (Ocoma) does a great job with our JV program.”
With another Housatonic title, Cheshire would break a school record. They previously won four straight from 1996-99. That mission won’t come easy. Bavone expects Amity to challenge CHS again for the title. From 1994 to 2004, the rivals were champions in 10 of 11 years. Head Coach Paul Thees left Amity after the 2007 season, but returned three years ago.
“Amity has a good team again. I knew they were coming when Paul came back,” said Bavone.
Despite graduation losses, Shelton (Oct. 3 and 19) has become Cheshire’s top division rival in the last few years. The Lady Rams beat Sheehan (Sept. 21, Oct. 10) three times last year, the last sweep coming in the SCC semifinals.
“Lyman Hall (Sept. 24, Oct. 12) has a new coach this year, so there should be change there,” added Bavone.
While not in the Housatonic, Foran, Branford (Sept. 14, Oct. 24), Jonathan Law (Sept. 18, Oct. 5), and Wilbur Cross (Sept. 19, Oct. 9) are SCC members.
Bavone holds the SCC Tournament in just as high an emphasis as Class LL. Look no further then the fact that CHS has reached the conference final in 14 of the last 16 years and holds eight championships (SCC record). Amity sits second with half (four) their number of titles.
“It’s very important because it gets your team into a tournament atmosphere before states,” stated Bavone. “I would rather these girls play tough matches than having an extended break.”
Cheshire hasn’t played Foran, their first opponent, since 2010. This year’s rematch is Oct. 22 at CHS.
“I think we’ll struggle early in the season, not in wins and losses, but the caliber of volleyball we want to play,” explained Bavone. “We need to get rhythm and communicate out there. That kind of chemistry doesn’t happen overnight. I’m confident that we’ll get there.”
Top bottom of Palladino (left) and Bryden (right) was taken by Greg Lederer/Cheshire Herald. The bottom photo of Walle is from Jim Brandolini/Cheshire Herald.