The motto for the Pierson/Bridgehampton girls volleyball team this season has been “Whatever it Takes.” And what it took on Wednesday at Greenport High School was five pressure-packed sets and one of the greatest team efforts in program history to upend the defending Suffolk County and Long Island Class C Champion.
With their season on the line, locked in a tight and decisive fifth set against Mattituck in the Lady Tuckers’ own backyard, Pierson and its dynamic senior duo of Sam Cox and Olivia Cassone responded with a win for the ages.
Cox was at the center of everything, finishing with 37 kills while serving out the game’s final point to punctuate a remarkable upset victory over the Lady Tuckers, who cruised to a League VIII title this season with a perfect 13-0 mark.
The match was tight right from the beginning and Pierson pulled away by the slimmest of margins, wining, 3-2, with set scores of 22-25, 29-27, 20-25, 25-22 and 25-23.
“I was thinking just like it’s a practice, I’m by myself in this gym, nobody is here and I just have to get one more serve over the net,” Cox said when asked about her mindset before serving out the final point.
The Lady Whalers, who dropped their previous two matches to Mattituck during the regular season, now will face the Class C champion from Nassau County on Saturday, November 16, at Hauppauge High School at 5 p.m. The winner will stamp their ticket to the New York State Championships, to be played at Cool Insuring Arena in Glens Falls over the weekend of November 23 and 24.
“Two years ago we went to states, but this is up there,” Pierson head coach Donna Fischer said when asked if the win over Mattituck was the biggest in program history. “The girls brought the I-C-E tonight, they went out there with intensity, concentration and energy — the I-C-E. They fought like they’ve never fought before.”
For the second straight game, Pierson played without its towering middle hitter, Gylia Dryden, who has been in concussion protocol since she was hit in the head by a ball in practice prior to the playoff win over Greenport on October 30.
Her absence, coupled with Mattituck’s dominance in league play this season, sent Pierson into Wednesday night’s game as a heavy underdog.
“I was extremely nervous. I was nervous all day, all night,” Cassone said later. “I got a good night sleep and woke up today and went into school, and this kid Will said to me, ‘I’m only going to the game if you’re going to win.’ And I said, ‘We’re going to win, I feel it inside.’ So I started to feel confident.”
Cassone and the rest of the Pierson defense had a slow start on Wednesday and Mattituck jumped out to a 2-1 lead behind their hard-hitting, all-everything senior hitter Viki Harkin. But Cassone’s play improved dramatically as the match wore on, and Cox eclipsed Harkin, for this match at least, as the best player on the floor.
“She’s an amazing athlete and volleyball is her passion,” Fischer said about Cox, her senior captain and a five-year varsity player. “She’s been playing for me since she was in elementary school. She has such great court knowledge and she’s such a great teacher on the floor. She’s a smart player.”
Pierson sophomore setter Sofia Mancino, who is often described as the heart and soul of the program, and who finished with 37 assists on Wednesday, served out the fourth set to pull the match even at two sets apiece, setting up a decisive fifth set.
Mattituck pulled away early in the fifth to take a 12-8 lead, but it was as large as the lead would get. Cox closed out a long rally with a monstrous spike, and sophomore Grace Brosnan served two straight points to pull even at 12 points apiece.
Mancino gave her team the lead for good on a service point at 14-13, but the match remained close until the end. Neither team led by more than two points, which was the final margin when sophomore Angela Gardella put the match away with a soft ball that barely cleared the net to clinch the championship.
“It was a pass from the back row, someone set it to me and I just rolled it over. I had high hopes,” Gardella said as the Lady Whalers and a large contingent of fans celebrated at midcourt. “The mindset coming in was don’t put anything negative into the universe and keep it positive. We worked so hard this season and we wanted to show everyone what we were made of tonight.”
Fischer said she expects Dryden to play in the Long Island final next week, which instantly makes the Lady Whalers a more dynamic team. Players like Mancino, Brosnan, Cassone, Gardella, Grace Flanagan, Sam Grabb and Lilith Bastek-Ochoa, who all made important contributions on Wednesday, should also be ready to go.
And then there is Cox, of course, an all-state player last season and the most decorated athlete in the history of Pierson volleyball. She stepped to the line for that final point against Mattituck and served out a momentous victory for her team, her school and all those loyal to Pierson High School who flocked to the North Fork on Wednesday.
“Two years ago the same thing happened to us where we lost to Stony Brook twice, and then we beat them in the counties,” Cox said about the 2017 season when Pierson advanced to pool play in Glens Falls. “On any given day, whoever works harder and plays better is going to come out with the win.”
Whatever it takes.