NEW CANAAN — Each time the New Canaan volleyball team earned a point last Thursday against Greenwich, there was a joyous celebration that would not have been unusual to see if it was the clinching one of the match.
And the Rams had a lot to smile about as they kept hits from the Cardinals’ dizzying array of front-row players off the floor, sending balls back and forcing them to reload.
Beating the best is always a signature accomplishment in sports, and the Cardinals are the…
The best in their region? The best in the FCIAC? We will never know the answer to that second question, but at the very least they are a measuring stick of some sort, especially after taking the Rams’ best shot and coming away with a very hard-fought 25-18, 25-23, 27-25 win.
That left Greenwich at 7-0 and 21-0 in total sets.
“New Canaan gave us a run for our money today,” said Lilly Saleeby, one of the league’s top all-around players. “They were super competitive and that’s what we’ve been looking for. Our pod only has five teams in it so whenever there’s a super competitive game we’re grateful for that. This was the closest game we’ve had. They gave us an exciting match. We saw what we could do under pressure. All good stuff for our team.”
This was the season the Cardinals had been waiting for, when their continually maturing lineup would be maximized, with eight seniors surrounded by a number of quality players. They looked a year ago as if they had arrived early, finishing the FCIAC regular season with the second-best record, tied with Westhill, which finished as the top seed, with just one loss.
The Vikings ended up losing in both the FCIAC and Class LL final, while Greenwich failed to reach the championship in either tournament.
Like all teams that normally would have entered this fall with a gigantic bull’s-eye, the Cardinals have had to change their goals and focus.
“I think our communication level has gotten better,” Saleeby said when asked for team improvements from a year ago. “Motivation. There is no state title or FCIAC title we’re working for so we are looking at other things for motivation. That’s what kind of keeps us going.”
The Cardinals came into Thursday having swept Stamford and Westhill, which while not quite as strong as a year ago still is an elite team, as evidenced by Thursday’s win over unbeaten Darien.
New Canaan (4-3) had its best season in years last fall and remains formidable. It forced the Cardinals to summon both the heart and skills of a champion, especially in the back and forth final set.
“Stamford tested us too but these guys are pretty athletic here in New Canaan,” Greenwich coach Steve Lapham said. “It was certainly a fun match. We wanted something like this, to be down a little bit. We’ve haven’t been down much. It was a good test. And at the end of the last set was fun. I was happy with the girls. They’re having fun.”
Lapham gets to see the talent level of his players on a daily basis, though in an abbreviated season with two instead of the customary three matches a week, it is not always against other FCIAC teams.
“It has been fun to watch,” Lapham said. “Our practices are intense. Nothing hits the floor. It’s rally after rally.”
The Cardinals are loaded in the talent department, led by Saleeby and Cornelia Roach up front. Junior Adele Sotgiu (12 kills, nine digs) led the attack against New Canaan. Senior setter Addie Leder had 38 assists. Junior middle hitter Liana Sarkissian also had a strong match.
“It was awesome,” said Roach, who will play at Boston College next season. “New Canaan is a great team. They get a lot of balls up and they are a lot of fun to play. It was a good fight. I loved it. For me that’s what makes volleyball fun. The super competitive side. Close games. You have to give your all. Everyone’s exhausted. It’s awesome.”
The Cardinals won’t get the chance to see Trumbull or Fairfield Ludlowe, last year’s respective league and state champions, but close the regular season with another match tomorrow against New Canaan, followed by a home and home series with the Blue Wave. Then comes a regional playoff.
“We’d love to see Trumbull again,” Lapham said. “I wish they took a little more time with the schedule. I think we could have spread it out a little bit more. As I told the girls we deal with what we can control and let the other stuff go. Right now we’re trying to have fun and the more fun we have the better we play.”