The Cheshire High School girls’ volleyball program holds themselves to a high standard of traditional success. So back on Oct. 26 when the Rams lost to host Lyman Hall, 3-0, for the first time in 22 years, the team knew that they needed to make a change.
“That LH match was huge for our season,” reflected senior setter Sarah Holley. “We had a player’s only meeting where we said that had to pick it up and play with more energy.”
While the Rams lost their rivalry win streak and unbeaten season last month, they used the setback to fuel a late-season surge. Not only did CHS win their last five matches, they didn’t drop a set in any of them.
“No one expected us to finish this way,” reflected Alenna Zebarth, a senior tri-captain with Danielle Hersh and Hannah Portal. “We didn’t have the stars of year’s past, but this group may have worked better because we complemented each other.”
On Nov. 13, Cheshire capped their season with a celebration at home. In the Southern Connecticut Conference Division B final, the top-seeded Rams (13-1) earned a 3-0 sweep (25-11, 25-18, 25-12) of North Haven (third seed) to earn a record 14th tournament title.
“We all wanted to end the season on a high note,” said Hersh.
After twice earning 3-1 victories over NH in the regular season, the Rams were happy to get a sweep in the finals.
“When we got together at the end of the season, we were loud and played with more energy,” explained senior Madison Ballschmieder. “It took us time to get in sync this year.”
Holley tallied 24 assists, two aces, two digs, and a kill en route to receiving SCC Tournament Most Outstanding Player.
“It is pretty cool,” stated Holley. “I can’t get that (award) without the passers getting me the ball and hitters putting it down.”
“She did a great job for us this year,” added Portal.
Head Coach Sue Bavone was happy to see Holley recognized after she had to recover from torn labrum surgery as a junior.
“She would have been our starting setter last year and losing a season stinks,” stated Bavone. “She has made a lot of growth as a player. Sarah is one of the most competitive kids on the team and the girls always felt comfortable that she would keep us on track. She has really good court awareness.”
In closing the year on a five-match win streak, Bavone felt that another key was moving sophomore Avery Mola to outside hitter. Mola tallied eight kills, an ace, and a dig in the title match.
“She is just a dominant hitter. Avery did well in the middle, but when our passing was shaky, she couldn’t get the ball there,” explained Bavone.
Zebarth (two aces, block) and Portal (four blocks) both compiled six kills and a dig against North Haven.
“Alenna stepped it up big time at the end of the year,” said Bavone. “Hannah was very active in the middle. She was working hard on offense and defense all year.”
Bavone felt that senior Avery Gress provided energy at the end of the season. Due to knee injuries, she couldn’t play in the last two seasons.
“I was proud to get back on the floor to play with these girls,” stated Gress. “It was a great way to finish my senior year.”
“Her mobility isn’t great yet, but she is strong and worked hard,” said Bavone. “Even though Avery couldn’t play in the last few seasons, she was at every practice and game, so we wanted to reward that dedication.”
To reach the SCC final, Cheshire won 3-0 (25-11, 25-18, 26-24) over Sheehan (fourth seed) in semifinal action on Nov. 11. The Titans looked to extend the match in building a 24-20 lead in game three, but the Rams erased four game points during a 6-0 spurt to clinch the victory and sweep the season series. Holley served on the final run.
“It felt great to get the sweep,” stated Holley, who earned 23 assists, six digs, and four aces. “Without the girls playing amazing defense and putting balls away, I wouldn’t have been able to keep serving at the end.”
Mola contributed eight kills and four aces. Zebarth posted a personal-best 10 kills, adding two aces and a block.
“It felt great to help the team,” said Zebarth. “I haven’t played my best lately, so knowing that this was going to be one of my last matches on this (home) court, I knew that I had to pick it up tonight.”
By the virtue of what they had to overcome during the pandemic, Bavone believes that this team was closer than in recent years.
“We were grateful that we had a chance to play,” stated Bavone. “The kids did a good job of not using COVID as an excuse for anything. They didn’t treat this year differently by how they prepared.”
To be allowed to compete this year, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference said that players and coaches had to wear masks to limit the risk of transmitting respiratory droplets.
“It wasn’t terrible, but it does affect your peripheral vision. I think it impacted the passers, but both teams had to deal with it,” said Bavone. “I thought it would have been more of a problem with breathing, but it was okay.”
The SCC tournament run was an extra special ending for Cheshire seniors.
“It is a great feeling to walk out of this gym for the last time as a champion,” stated Zebarth.
“I’m happy for the seniors,” added Bavone. “They worked hard to keep the team together. There are a lot of different personalities in that group and they got along great.”