EAST HAVEN — Momentum is perhaps the most-oft heard term in volleyball, in part because strategic moves are always made to attain it, contain it and deny it.
Seldom, though, is the word used in defeat, but that was not the case in the first set of Saturday night’s Class LL final. Stamford was getting bombarded by Ridgefield hitters Elizabeth Middlebrook, Caroline Curnal and Alicia Hill, a carryover from the Tigers’ come-from-behind semifinal win over Greenwich. Every ball the Black Knights tried to put down was dug up.
When Middlebrook hit off a block, Ridgefield was up 21-7 and seemed headed for an easy win.
But a kill by Sara Staley jump-started the Black Knights, and suddenly they rallied within 24-22 before Ridgefield got the next point and the game.
The Tigers won the immediate battle, but Stamford had seized the pace of play, and quickly ran off the next three sets to capture its first state title in the sport, 22-25, 25-20, 25-13, 25-22.
Afterward, Black Knights coach Mike Smeriglio admitted the most important set might have been the one they didn’t win.
“That was huge because they just totally outplayed us,” Smeriglio said. “You can’t say we did anything wrong. (The Tigers) were superb. The comeback changed the momentum, no question about it.”
Third-seeded Stamford (25-2), behind a balanced attack led by Andrea O’Connor, who was named the most valuable player, ended the season on a 19-match winning streak, which included the FCIAC title.
“I don’t think they know how to lose,” Smeriglio said. “I was worried in game one; we haven’t lost one in so long it was uncharacteristic. When they started playing better they said OK, this is us, we just had a bad start. I think if that continued in game one it would have been a different story.”
O’Connor, who was also the MVP of the FCIAC final and, scarily for the rest of the conference, is a junior and returning next year, finished with 23 kills, 4 blocks and 3 assists. After the award ceremony she was still overwhelmed.
“I can’t even explain this,” O’Connor said with a laugh. “It hasn’t even hit yet.”
Asked about the first-set rally, O’Connor added, “We’ve never been that far down before. If we just stay calm we know that we can do anything as a team together. We just need to keep our energy up.”
It has been a glorious run for O’Connor, who was part of the school’s basketball team that also won twin titles last winter.
Smeriglio paraphrased an upstate women’s basketball coach in explaining O’Connor’s dominance.
“Geno Auriemmea when he had Diana Taurasi said ‘We have Diana and you don’t.’ We have Andrea and you don’t.”
Setter Jayla Wilson added 37 assists and 15 service points for Stamford. Sara Staley finished with 9 kills and 6 service points, Liisa Balazs had 7 kills and 5 service points and Gloria Mattioli ended up with 10 service points and 7 digs.
Ridgefield (21-4) takes home no trophies but can take pride in the best season in school history. This was the Tigers’ first trip to the state final, and outside of a shaky third set they played well.
“The girls worked hard all season,” Stamford coach Lidania Cibere said. “There is nothing they should be ashamed of. We had a great season. It was such a positive experience. I think we are more sad that it’s over.”
Ridgefield was down two sets and tied 24-24 in the third against top-seeded Greenwich in the semifinals on Wednesday before staging a memorable comeback that will be perhaps its biggest souvenir of the season. And down 22-15 in the fourth set against Stamford, it appeared the Tigers’ season might end quietly.
But led by Middlebrook, they drew within 23-21 and might have gained another point on a ball that ended up caught on a rail in the gymnasium ceiling and had to be replayed. Stamford’s Lauren O’Neill hit a winner and, after a point from Middlebrook, a long serve ended the match.
“Stamford is a great team,” Cibere said. “Andrea O’Connor did a phenomenal job. It’s tough. I’m really glad there were two FCIAC teams here. It is a really strong conference and to play an opponent from it I thought was great for the FCIAC. We couldn’t really contain Andrea. That point at the end was a little bit of a momentum killer. We had our opportunities earlier, we just couldn’t capitalize.”
Middlebrook ended her career with 22 kills and 14 digs. Caroline Curnal, a junior whose demonstrative kills make her the equivalent of a hard-throwing baseball pitcher, was outstanding, with 16 kills, 20 digs and 15 service points.
“She did a great job,” Cibere said. “She will come back hungry next year.”
Ridgefield setter Katie Linekin added 36 assists and 10 digs, while Nicole Nielsen had 15 digs.
Stamford coach Mike Smeriglio said the turning point for his team came during a 3-2 win over Greenwich on Oct. 17.
“Before game five they still weren’t sure how good they were, and I said, look, you’re the best team in the FCIAC, you’re the best team in the state but the only people who don’t know it are you, so go out and win this,” Smeriglio said. “Then they did and they started getting a lot more confidence from then on.”