FAIRFIELD — Meghan Skelton knew there was no need for an inspirational talk after the third set of today’s FCIAC volleyball championship. Westhill had just steamrolled to a 25-13 win to take a 2-1 advantage over Fairfield Ludlowe.
Skelton, the Falcons’ coach, has a rotation almost exclusively of seniors playing in the final for the last time. They needed nothing more than just a little time to regroup.
“We all agreed it’s over, we’re going to move on,” Skelton said.” I gave them five seconds, I literally counted down and said that set is done, we’re winning. There’s no other option. You guys are prepared for this, we’ve done it so many times in the fifth set, we can do it now.”
And so they did. Led by a formidable front row of six-footers and a stable of strong specialists, the Falcons took control midway through the fourth set and did not let up, rallying to a 16-25, 25-21, 13-25, 25-16, 15-9 win.
The final point came, fittingly, when one of Ludlowe’s towers, Amy Lumaj, made a block on Westhill’s top hitter, Betsy Sachs.
“We always just say point by point,” said the Falcons’ Jo Blanco. “A lot of times volleyball gets away from you, you get caught up in it. It’s all about momentum. We slow it down, we take it point by point so no matter how far we are behind or ahead, it only matters what happens next and in the moment. That’s how we came back every time.”
Ludlowe (19-4), the third seed, avenged one of its losses to win the league title for the first time since 2015.
It was also Skelton’s 200th career victory.
“I’ve believed in them since they were freshmen and sophomores,” Skelton said. “We knew we were building up to this year. To see them put in the hard work, and for them to get the tangible proof, getting that trophy, is everything for them. For me I am so proud, I knew that we could do it so getting that final point down was everything.”
The Falcons. unsurprisingly, got contributions from a variety of sources in a number of ways, starting with libero Margaret Nolan, who finished with 40 digs and six service points to deservingly take home the most valuable player award.
“Every single person wanted it so bad,” Nolan said. “We wanted it so, so bad. It’s so many of our last seasons so everyone kept stepping up. Every single person. We started picking up everything they tried to give us. They tried to put in tips, we picked up everything. We picked up every ball. Once we were down a few points we put it right back in their face with our big hitters.”
Jackie Soderlund (13 kills, three blocks) and Lumaj (12 kills, five blocks) were dominant at net, while Blanco ended up with six kills, 16 service points, six assists and 14 digs. Quarterback Ava Sanborn finished with 40 assists.
“That’s the magic of this team. It’s not a one-, two- or even three-person team,” Skelton said. “It’s a collective 17. These girls have challenged each other, my bench is so deep. We have everybody contributing at all points, which is incredible to have.”
Only the second set featured pronounced swings. No. 1 Westhill (19-4) rallied from a 12-7 deficit and took a 15-14 lead on a nice hit off the block by Sophia Thagouras. But Blanco answered with a six-point service run, with Lumaj doing most of the damage.
The Vikings again responded to tie the game at 20-20 on a block by Sachs before the Falcons won five of the final six points to even the match.
Otherwise each team pretty much dominated the sets they won, with the only difference being how long it took to build the lead.
Sachs finished with 13 kills, six service points, five blocks and four digs, but her hitting opportunities dwindled over the final two sets.
“Once our passing was off we couldn’t set the ball where we needed to set it,” Westhill coach Marianna Linnehan said.
Thagouras finished with nine kills, 20 assists, 12 service points and 11 digs. Caroline Boyd added five kills, 15 service points and 14 digs, while Gloria Twum had seven kills. Maddie Bautista (20 digs), Vana Servos (16 assists, 10 digs, eight service points), Sanjana Nayak (nine digs, five service points) and Tamar Bellete (five kills, six aces, four blocks and four service points) also made significant contributions.
All but two are seniors.
“It’s disappointing because I wanted them to play like they could play, especially like they were playing on Thursday, everything on the floor, and it was bits and pieces here and there,” said Linnehan, referring to a semifinal win over Trumbull after the Vikings had dropped the first two games. “They were in, they were out. So it’s a little frustrating when we have the momentum and we see what we could do and then the momentum changes and we just shut down today unfortunately.”
The Ludlowe players agreed the significance of being on the brink was enough to spur their comeback.
“We just looked into each other’s eyes and it was like we’re in our gym, our senior year, we made it this far, there’s no turning back,” Blanco said. “There was no doubt in my mind that we were winning, no matter how far back we were. It was so much work and Westhill put up such a strong fight. It feels so good. Really, really good.”