'Exceeding expectations': Boys volleyball picks up where it left off

Photo of Scott Ericson

As many spring athletes celebrated getting outside for games and practices, boys volleyball teams across the state were thrilled to get back into gymnasiums.

Boys volleyball is back playing this spring with some modified rules but otherwise picking up where it left off in 2019.

Those involved with the sport said that while the number of participants is down slightly from 2019, they expect a quick recovery based on the fact that many of the players come out on the recommendation of friends who have enjoyed playing.

“We did OK with numbers after the year off. Two years ago we had over 50 kids which was a record number of kids. This year we had 25 at tryouts but have had kids coming out after tryouts after they talk to their friends who are playing,” 11-year New Canaan coach Amy Warren said. “It’s a little speed bump and we will recover by next year. Kids talk about the program with friends, which is where a lot of our players come from. We also try to recruit basketball and football players. It’s a good sport and a lot of fun.”

New Canaan’s experienced roster has helped them to an 8-1 start.

Defending Class L champion Staples is 8-2 with runner-up Daren at 10-0. In Class M, 2019 champion Newington is 9-1 and runner-up Cheshire is 7-2.

Staples, which was loaded for a run at a third title in 2020, has a completely new roster made up of players previously only on JV.

The good news for the Wreckers is four of the current starters played club volleyball and participated in clinics in the year away.

“Last year we would have been strong with a chance to win it again. The worst part is those eight boys will never know,” Staples third-year coach John Sedlock said. “Part of the reason we have played well in the start is those four kids who put in the work in the off-season and all through the missed year.”

Staples had 39 athletes signed up for volleyball in 2020 but only 18 this spring.

“We took a major hit because of COVID,” Sedlock said. “Volleyball is not a popular sport and a lot of boys do not even know we have a program when they get to school until they find out in gym class or from friends. It is a lot of word of mouth and this year with the kids remote for so long that was much harder.”

The new rules in place do not alter the game drastically and are in line with how girls volleyball was played successfully in the fall.

Players must wear masks the entire game with mask breaks allowed during the contest.

Teams do not switch sides of the net or change benches as is traditional in volleyball, there are no pregame handshakes and no line judges.

Additionally, for the 2021 regular season only, the CIAC has reduced the number of games a team must play to qualify for states down to 10. If a team does not meet the minimum number of games to qualify because of the pandemic, yet meet the required win percentage, they may appeal to the CIAC to play in the state tournament.

That rule was put in place to allow teams who may face shutdowns or quarantines to have a chance to play in the postseason.

The FCIAC has slightly altered its postseason format and will allow all 13 teams to play in the playoffs with a play-down round prior to the quarterfinals. In past years, the FCIAC has had eight teams in the league tournament.

The SCC will hold its tournament with its five participating teams.

Shelton coach LeAnne Bianchine has been coaching the boys team for 11 years and the girls team for 21.

She said the Gaels brought back a lot of returning players, many of whom played on their own during the year off.

“We were lucky we had a lot of boys playing in the offseason. Even if it was just five players going to each other’s house to work out,” Bianchine said. “Some of the boys also manage the girls team and got to be in the gym and go into a corner and work on things in the fall. We have a great connection between our girls and boys programs and it makes both better.”

Shelton is 8-3, having lost its last three to some of the state’s top teams in Barlow (9-0), Cheshire (7-2) and Masuk (8-3).

“We are playing well, we lost the last three but it was to very good teams. Cheshire and Masuk are really good and Barlow is excellent,” Bianchine said. “The kids are so happy to be back out there. Especially our seniors. This is their year and their time to shine. They are thrilled to be out there.”

Trumbull’s 3rd-year coach Nicole Trommelen said her program had a similar number of athletes try out this spring as they did in 2019 due in large part to a group of returning seniors and sophomores.

She said her team, which is 9-1, has been steadily getting better.

“The year off affected the little technical stuff the most, but we and our opponents are improving every game,” Trommelen said. “The lost year didn’t seem to hurt us, our numbers are back where they were. The more we play, the more they talk about it with their friends and the more it grows. Our biggest challenge this year was getting the freshmen class interested. We only have four freshmen but luckily we have a very strong senor class and a sophomore class with a lot of players.”

Last week, Trumbull and New Canaan played a thrilling five-set match with New Canaan pulling out a 15-13 set-five win, handing Trumbull its only loss.

Trommelen said that match seemed like there was no year off because the quality of play was so high.

“It was so competitive on both sides. It was great to see that level of competition going into the playoffs,” Trommelen said. “I think the competition across the board will get even better as teams get into conference and state playoffs. We are definitely exceeding expectations. It has gone from just hoping to get the season in to placing importance on the games.”

Sericson@stamfordadvocate.com; @EricsonSports