At the New York State Public High School girls volleyball championships over the weekend, there was a lot of talk about what coaches refer to as “the journey.”
From hot preseason practice in August to the chilly courts inside the Cool Inuring Arena in Glens Falls, where ice literally lies below the floor, the journey for these teams has been long and arduous. There are no short cuts to greatness, the Pierson/Bridgehampton Lady Whalers have learned, and the path to rock-solid team chemistry and consistently high levels of play stretches from months, even years, of collective hard work.
And then, of course, there’s just plain talent, which was on full display Saturday during pool play of the Class C state final four, where the two-time defending state champion Portville Lady Panthers got all they could handle from Valhalla from Section I and its towering middle hitter, Jasmine Grant.
Grant, a 5-foot-10 senior bound for West Point and Division I volleyball next year, was the best Class C player on the court all weekend and led the Lady Vikings to a perfect 6-0 mark in pool play, and a state championship on Sunday with a 3-1 victory over the Section VI champion, Portville.
Pierson, which won Suffolk County and Long Island finals on its way to a second trip to the state tournament — the first coming two years ago with many of the same players on the roster — dropped all six of its sets, losing the last two to Lake George in an evenly-matched competition once the final pairing was already set.
The tournament brought an end to the careers of Pierson seniors Sam Cox and Olivia Cassone, who walked off the court after six hours of pool play with their heads held high and their hearts full of gratitude as the most decorated Lady Whalers in the history of the program.
“I am extremely proud of Olivia and I,” said Cox. “We helped bring the team here when we were sophomores and now we’re going out here as seniors. I think that’s a perfect ending.”
“Playing with Sam has been the most incredible experience,” Cassone added. “It was an honor to play with Sam.”
The weekend began with a banquet on Friday night and 20 teams from five classifications across the state gathering for dinner and special presentations. An early start on Saturday began with a parade of players and an opening ceremony, followed immediately by pool play, where four teams from Class A, C and D played simultaneously on adjacent courts, filling the arena with electric energy and intense competition.
The Lady Whalers drew Portville, the two time defending state champion from the Buffalo area, in the first round and kept the match close early. Pierson began to scramble defensively with the score at 12-7, and head coach Donna Fischer called a timeout. A few points later, sophomore middle hitter Grace Brosnan went down with an ankle injury and did not return, as the Lady Panthers coasted to a 25-13 win, followed by a 25-14 victory in the second set.
“I felt like they were a little off today,” said Fischer, who also played without freshman Sam Grabb, another frontline player who has been out for weeks with an injured ankle. “I felt like communication was broken. When they made a mistake, instead of encouraging each other and bouncing back, they kind of wigged out. I don’t know if it was the venue, it was so big and loud and cold, but we wanted it so bad. “
The team’s next opponent was Valhalla, which dispatched Pierson by scores of 25-12 and 25-14 to essentially eliminate the Lady Whalers from the final. All that was left was a battle between two summer resort communities, as Lake George swept Pierson in the final two sets of pool play, 25-19 and 25-15.
“We fought so hard all season long and I’m really proud we took our small Sag Harbor team to states,” Fischer said. “I hope to come back next year.”
Portville head coach Kelly Unverdorben talked about what it takes to build a program that not only reaches the state tournament, but also wins it. When asked how many players on her roster play volleyball year-round, she said “all of them.”
“We graduated five seniors last year and there was a lot of talk about how this group wasn’t going to be able to do what they did so I think they were on a mission,” Unverdorben said. “They got to work right after last season with everything from weight training to club volleyball to beach volleyball, whatever they could do to touch a ball all year long.”
Many Pierson players compete year-round as well and now realize what the level of play looks like at the state tournament. Juniors Gylia Dryden and Lilith Bastek-0choa will return to lead next year’s team, along with sophomore Sofia Mancino, and players like Brosnan, Grabb, Grace Flanagan, Angela Gardella, Ashley Weatherwax, Ayanna El and Ngelika Tobias-Narvaes.
Their new journey, most understood on Saturday, begins immediately.
“Our hopes are that they took this all in and they’re motivated to come back the next few years,” Cox said. “We’ve made history here and hopefully they have some motivation to come back and hang something on the wall of the Pierson High School gym.”