By Dave Ruden
WESTPORT — As soon as the state volleyball draw was unveiled, Lauren Mushro and her Staples teammates rushed to their computers.
“We were all up on the CIAC website, looking who we would play next,” Mushro said. “We were hoping we would face them. We’re really excited for this.”
Them is Greenwich, the one school that has proved to be the Wreckers’ kryptonite this fall, the difference thus far between a perfect season and one that has seemed like a satisfying meal served without dessert.
Staples is 0-2 against the Cardinals and 21-0 against the rest of the state.
On Thursday night in Trumbull, the Wreckers get one final chance against Greenwich in what has been arguably the FCIAC’s best rivalry in any sport this fall, two talented and prideful programs that have played a pair of five-set matches, most recently 11 days ago in a memorable FCIAC championship.
“I don’t think they’re going to be able to beat us a third time,” said Amelia Brackett, the Wreckers’ outstanding hitter. “I think we’re pretty much the same level skill-wise as they are, so we definitely have a chance to beat them.”
While that first sentence would normally find its way onto an opponent’s bulletin board, the words were spoken without hubris but more with confidence and a look at the percentages.
“First it is tough to beat a team three times,” Staples coach Jon Shepro said. “This is a chance to redeem the other two losses and win in a semifinal game against what we see as the toughest team. If we win this game it puts us in a position to win the state title.”
The Staples players were joking prior to practice Tuesday about a place to hang an FCIAC runner-up banner. But they want the real thing. The school has never won a state championship in the sport, failing in four tries, most recently in 1992 to Maloney in five sets.
The first two matches between Staples and Greenwich this year were characterized by relentless efforts on both sides of the net on the court and mutual respect off of it. The Cardinals have been gracious in victory, the Wreckers gracious in defeat.
Staples would just like to have the roles reversed when the teams meet Thursday night.
“We could have beaten them those two times,” Brackett said. “We came so close and it didn’t work out. It’s really frustrating but having that experience, now we’re more focused. The thing that is different this time is we really want it. We know they can beat us because they’ve done it twice before. So we are going into it with more energy and more focus.”
This is a special Staples team, one with exceptional personnel and no real exploitable weaknesses. Brackett is one of the state’s best hitters, and along with Mushro the Wreckers have a solid 1-2 offensive punch. Knox Schieffelin has been a reliable third option and solid defensively at net.
Ariana Sherman is the quarterback running the offense. Val Kirsch, Dayna Gelman and Elizabeth Knoll have been among the other key contributors.
“Players like Amelia and Lauren come along once in a lifetime,” Shepro said. “We feel we have an offense that can compete with anybody and our defense is almost as good as anybody. This is the season I’ve been waiting for since I began coaching.”
Solving the Cardinals will probably come down to a little better execution and a strong mental approach. The latter is not a concern, as long as the Wreckers guard against being overanxious.
For that reason, Shepro has not spent any time since Saturday’s quarterfinal win over Simsbury making any strategical adjustments.
“I don’t know that we need to change too much, nor do I think we want to change too much,” he said. “We’ve been playing the same way all season, with the same strengths and weaknesses. Changing could screw us up a little bit. We just need to be a little bit better defensively, serve a little bit stronger and receive a little bit better and the points will come.”
There is always a debate in these situations over which team has the psychological edge. Brackett believes it belongs to the Wreckers.
“I think we have the advantage,” she said. “They are going to be, OK, we’ve beaten them twice before, while we are going to come in with the attitude of wanting it more in a way because we haven’t proved we can do it.”
Mushro said she has been envisioning an outcome that thus far has proved elusive, grounded in belief but not yet reality.
Thursday is the chance for that all to change.
“It’s been frustrating to lose, but if we pull together I know we have it in us,” Mushro said. “If we won, it would be sweet.”