By Dave Ruden
FAIRFIELD — This was the volleyball matchup everyone was anticipating 10 months ago, before Superstorm Sandy forced the FCIAC to declare co-champions in most sports.
But as much of a temptation as it might have been to hype Wednesday’s showdown between Darien and Fairfield Ludlowe as the chance to finally decide an undisputed champion, that storyline could not have been more inaccurate.
Many of the protagonists from a year ago are departed, leaving the two programs with a number of unknown players high on potential but lacking in an experience.
Which might be one reason there was optimism on both sidelines after the Blue Wave’s 25-27, 25-17, 25-21, 25-18 win.
Darien (6-0) has just one senior on the roster, yet withstood a spirited effort by Ludlowe, which is settling into the position of being a consistent contender.
The Blue Wave gave up a 19-12 lead and dropped the opening set, yet held their poise though the Falcons made runs in each of the subsequent three sets.
“We played really good defense today and kept the ball up,” said Darien’s Celia Martzolf, who efficiently quarterbacked the team, finishing with 27 assists. “We had really nice hits and when they got the ball back we stayed calm and stuck to our game and tried to eventually get a kill.”
Darien has won every league title in the sport since 1992 save for 2000, when the former consolidated Fairfield High School team broke the string.
Darien now must contend with remaining to be targeted by the rest of the league while striving to discover its own identity.
“This match was good to see where we are at and what we need to work on, so it was really nice playing a really good team,” Martzolf said.
Nicole Schmidt, the Blue Wave’s lone senior, finished with 15 kills, while Claire Naughton added 6 kills and 3 assists. A player to definitely keep an eye on: sophomore Isabelle Taylor, whose two older sisters are alumni of the program — the eldest, Ally, was an All-State player — and who has both power at net and versatility on the back row.
“We’re really young,” Martzolf said. “We have a lot of things that we have to teach each other so we are kind of starting over. A lot of practices are based on basics.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Ludlowe coach Meghan Skelton and her players after they lost in four sets to Darien after jumping out to a 1-0 lead for the second straight year.
“The first game especially, I thought we played phenomenally,” said 6-foot-2 middle blocker Casey Boatwright, who finished with 18 kills, 9 service points and 3 blocks. “Then we started to miss serves and make stupid errors.”
Ludlowe (5-1) rallied from deficits in each of the final three sets, only to see its momentum thwarted, if not by a strong Darien play, than one of its own mistakes.
Skelton has a number of seniors, but few who have seasoning, and they are supported by a strong junior class.
“We are learning to work together as a team,” Skelton said. “We did not play our best. I wasn’t proud of what we put forth. Unforced errors were a killer. It just kills the momentum you’ve got going.”
Even nearly one-third of the way into the season, Skelton is still trying to fit the pieces together. There are two sides to the process.
“The good news about this year’s team, better than years past, is we have amazing potential,” Skelton said. “I have a bench so deep. I have no idea who’s starting. We don’t have a set lineup, which is thrilling but also frustrating because so many girls are rising to the occasion, which is a great problem to have.”
Skelton has another month to figure it all out.
“Maybe we’ll face them again in FCIACs, maybe in states,” Boatwright said. “Hopefully we will do better.”