By Dave Ruden
FAIRFIELD — As the members of the Greenwich High School volleyball team headed back to their bench, forced to a decisive fifth set by Staples for the FCIAC championship, a sense of urgency emerged.
For the Cardinals’ eight seniors, this was the last chance at an elusive first conference title. For Mirei Kato, the outstanding fourth-year starter, it was a time to regroup.
“We knew we had to put that fourth set behind us and go out there and play the way we could,” Kato said. “We have a lot of experience and we are a lot more calm and our focus was on playing as a team.”
After dropping one match point in the penultimate game, the top-seeded Cardinals scored the first four points, jumped out to a 13-3 lead and held on Saturday for a 25-14, 17-25, 25-20, 24-26, 15-5 victory, winning their first FCIAC title in the sport in their fourth attempt.
When Catherine Cabano’s final kill touched the Fairfield Ludlowe gymnasium, there was a celebration four years in the making for the core of the team.
“It’s unreal, we’ve been working hard all season and we finally did it,” Cabano said. “I can’t believe this happened. It’s amazing as a team how we could come together. This is like my second family.”
Kato, who as a freshman started as the Cardinals won a state title, had five points in the last set, unleashing consecutive bullets early to set the tone. She finished with 17 kills, 15 digs and 6 assists, a performance that earned her the most valuable player award, the second-most important accomplishment of her night.
“I’m proud of Mirei,” Greenwich coach Steve Lapham said. “She can cut, she can hit her spots. She can do it all. She dictates what we do. We feed off of her.”
Greenwich’s accomplishment was all the more significant given the parity in the league this year. It finished tied with Staples in conference play during the regular season with a 16-1 record, a game ahead of Darien and Fairfield Ludlowe.
“It was a great match,” Staples coach Jon Shepro said. “It’s great to see the FCIAC final come down to five. These are the two best teams in the FCIAC. Great volleyball, just super volleyball. Greenwich was the better team tonight and hopefully we will get another chance at them.”
While the Cardinals were the featured storyline, there was something bigger at play Saturday afternoon, a day that was a celebration of the sport. With no disrespect for a venerable Darien program that had won 18 of the previous 19 titles, it was refreshing to see two different finalists.
And the quality of play often bordered on brilliant, with two talented teams going all out — including Staples’ Elizabeth Knoll at one point going behind her bench and almost into a wall to keep a ball in play.
This was the best attended FCIAC Tournament in league history, and the final lived up to the billing, a reprisal of the Cardinals’ regular-season five-set win.
Staples, which played well and got another outstanding performance from Amelia Brackett, didn’t lose the match. Greenwich won it.
“They definitely brought out the best in us,” Cabano said. “When you play against competition like that you have to step up. Staples is an amazing team. Their serves, their passes, their spikes. They’re very tough. I congratulate them. This was one of the best FCIAC championships ever.”
Kato admitted to some trepidation before the final set of the league season.
“I felt like it could go either way,” Kato said. “I felt they could have had more of the momentum on their side, but we got the first couple of points. I have been trying for four years and we have come up just a little short. I knew the last four years we were capable of this. This was our last chance.”
With Greenwich seeded second and Staples third, the teams could meet again in the state semifinals, a prospect that would disappoint few in Ludlowe’s gymnasium Saturday.
It was a point Lapham brought up after the match. First, he said, the Cardinals were going to live in the present.
An FCIAC title had been a long time coming.