Volleyball recap: Wilton will look to build off success in 2017

After qualifying for the state playoffs for the first time in nine years, the Wilton High volleyball team has no plans on going anywhere but up.

The Warriors are looking to achieve more milestones next year and in the years to come.

“They’re coming back hungry to do more next year, and try to get to FCIACS, which the program hasn’t done for a long time,” said head coach Steve Brienza, who believes this year’s success will set a “new standard” for what his players expect to achieve.

“It’s encouraging because of the mentality and the attitude of our younger players, especially our returning players,” he said.

While the team needs to replace its six seniors, the returning players will come back having had “that competitive edge that athletes need” instilled in them, he said.

“It gave them a taste of what the postseason is,” he said. “They want to be able to push the program forward.”

The final record of 9-12 was the most wins by Wilton since 2007, which was also the last time the Warriors earned a postseason berth. In the eight seasons in between, Wilton averaged four wins per season.

This season marked only the 11th time in the past 36 years that Wilton hit the eight-win mark, and only the 11th time the team’s qualified for the state playoffs since 1980. The team just missed becoming only the eighth in Wilton history to reach 10 wins.

The 3-0 loss to Glastonbury in the first round of state playoffs was disappointing, Brienza said, but “it’s important that everyone recognizes what we did achieve.”

The most telling sign of the program’s progress is that this was a rebuilding year, as Wilton had to replace seven seniors from the 2015 squad, including many starters. Despite that, the Warriors went from four wins in 2015 to nine wins this year.

So despite graduating six seniors from this year’s team, Brienza feels the Warriors will keep moving forward next season.

“The talent is there. It’s just a matter of getting the reps in the offseason and realizing the potential we have moving forward into the 2017 season,” he said. “There’s a lot of potential coming up.”

Brienza pointed to several reasons for the uptick in success. One, there is more interest. This fall, 52 girls tried out for the program, which is an increase of 12 over Brienza’s first season four years ago. This year Wilton had 13 freshmen.

Players are also getting a taste of volleyball at a younger age through the town program for grades five through nine, which serves as a feeder program for the high school team.

And third, more players are playing in the offseason at the club level and attending clinics — including several players trying out for teams at the national and regional level.

The offseason play helps players see where they need to be, and helps them get there.

“A lot of the girls in our program play club ball with girls from all around — Darien, Staples, McMahon — and they see what the level of play is that they’re competing against,” the coach said.

The team will need to replace senior captain Ava Martinelli, a defensive specialist who was named third-team all-FCIAC, and fellow senior Rachel Low, a setter who earned all-FCIAC honorable mention recognition.

“Ava was an exceptional captain. It’s hard to step into that role with so many new players. She was super positive,” said Brienza. “That leadership they exhibited this year was something we desperately needed.”

Martinelli and Low were both chosen to play in last week’s FCIAC Senior All-Star Game.

The team also graduate three other seniors who were part of the regular rotation in Hayley Meyer (opposite), Sarah Souza (outside hitter) and Kat Aznaran (middle blocker), along with defensive specialist Isabella Jones.

“We’re going to miss all the seniors. All of them at some point played a role in what we accomplished,” Brienza said. “I came in with them four years ago and it was great for them to go out on a high note, and see the success and reward from all the time they put in over the four years.”

The Warriors will return a strong core of players next season, with two outstanding outside hitters back in junior Sommer Rogg and sophomore Juliana Musilli, along with junior defensive specialist Sophie Phelan, junior middle blocker Addie Tanzman and junior setter Emma Vail. The state tournament roster also included sophomores Kiana Nobumoto and Cate McCabe, and freshman Johanna Knox.

The coach said competition to replace the six departing seniors will be fierce among players trying to move up next year.

“The JV players know there are varsity spots open and are a little more motivated to do things in the offseason to get better,” he said.

And the Warriors will need that kind of “competitive edge” if they hope to continue making inroads in the very tough FCIAC.

“I want to get my team to play up to that level, and play at a high level of competition. All the steps are in place. It’s a matter of getting to the next level, of where we’d like to be,” said Brienza. “The future’s bright.”