Down a set and with nervous energy enveloping her team, Donna Fischer pulled her Pierson/Bridgehampton girls volleyball players into a tight huddle.
“It was a rollercoaster,” was how she described the emotions of Saturday night at Hauppauge High School.
The ultimate stop on the ride, however, will be the Cool Insuring Arena in Glens Falls next weekend where the Lady Whalers will make a return trip the New York State Class C Championships after they knocked off Oyster Bay, the champion from Nassau County, 3-1, to earn the program’s seconds trip to states in three years.
The team went 1-5 in pool play in 2017, a record Fischer hopes to improve on with more experienced players on this year’s team.
“I think we’re going to do much better than that this time around,” Fischer said after Saturday’s win, which came with scores of 16-25, 25-15, 25-11 and 25-20. “I really believe in the spirit of this group.”
Unlike other sports with a traditional format of two semifinals followed by a final the following day, the four Class C girls volleyball teams on Saturday will face each other in pool play, with the top two teams advancing to play for a state championship. Pool play will begin on Saturday, November 23, at 8:30 a.m., with the final scheduled for noon on Sunday.
Both Fischer and her players admitted to significant nervous energy prior to Saturday’s match with Oyster Bay. Gylia Dryden, the team’s towering middle hitter, had missed two weeks with a concussion, including the team’s two playoff wins over Greenport and Mattituck. She returned on Saturday and after a slow start, dominated at the net to finish with 18 kills and three big blocks.
Fischer’s analogy of a rollercoaster rang true for the junior from Bridgehampton.
“At first I was really down and I was freaking out because I didn’t want to make any mistakes,” Dryden said after a celebration erupted at center court. “I did not want to screw my team so I wanted to really push it and put my all into it. I wanted to be consistent with that, because we really wanted to go to states again this year.”
Pierson (14-3) has been led all season, of course, by the levelheaded senior duo of Sam Cox and Olivia Cassone, who once again were at the center of everything on Saturday, along with sophomore setter Sofia Mancino.
Cox finished with 20 kills, while Mancino had 35 assists. Cassone, the team’s libero, finished the match with 30 digs. All three of those players were on the state team in 2017.
“This whole group has worked so hard, and given such effort at every practice and every game,” Fischer said.
Cox, who plans to continue her volleyball career in college, scouted Oyster Bay in its county championship match against East Rockaway on Tuesday, and, as a result, felt mentally prepared for Saturday’s final.
Going in, she thought, “it’s going to be tougher than Mattituck,” which Pierson beat in an upset to win the Suffolk County championship, “so we have to go in and play hard and strong from the beginning, which we lacked a little, but we bounced back quickly,” she said. “We only let the idea of a win stay in our minds. We had to have that tough mentality that nothing’s going to let it get us down, and nothing’s going to get in our head.”
Cox and Cassone were only sophomores on their last trip upstate, and admitted to being surprised by the level of play, which Fischer said was “much faster” than anything they had seen during the regular season. With that experience, and with a wave of momentum on their side, this year’s Lady Whalers are hoping to leave their imprint on the big stage.
“I’m so excited,” Cassone said as the gym finally began to quiet down on Saturday. “I went to states in 2017. I didn’t know what I was in for then, but now, since I’ve been there, I know what I’m in for, I know what’s going to come at us.
“It’s going to be hard,” she added, “but I am so excited for that trip again — it’s going to be the most incredible experience ever.”