BERLIN — The Woodland volleyball team might not have earned its state championship win without its state championship loss.
“Maybe not,” Hawks coach Jim Amato. “The world may never know. But maybe it just wasn’t time yet.”
Whether or not it was time in 2012 mattered less than the experience the Hawks gained from the 3-0 loss to Ledyard at East Haven High. The trip to that final took the edge off this year’s visit.
“Last year we were nervous because it was our first time being there,” senior setter Samantha Lee said. “We weren’t the underdogs this year and that motivated us.”
“I just felt like it was another game,” senior libero Rachel Starkey agreed. “I didn’t feel any nerves.”
Amato figured the difference in emotion level between this final and last was noticeable.
“We had set a goal in years previous to get there, and when we did, you don’t realize how big it is to get there,” Amato said. “The (2012) semi was a huge match, and it was so emotional to get through that. When we got through that Tolland match, carrying the emotion into the finals was difficult.”
History’s hand in a title: Amato has had some of the Naugatuck Valley League’s best teams in his eight-year tenure as Woodland’s head coach. No matter how good they were or how easily they ripped through conference play, they all fell short in state tournament play.
Still, he said all the past teams should feel like they are part of this state title.
“Every team that has played before this team has had a hand in this championship, and I don’t say that lightly,” Amato said. “It has to do with the coaching staff. I have great coaches: Chris Tomlin, Jess DeGennaro and Jenna Broadbent. Every year we would come off a season and we’ve made changes to our program.”
It started in the program’s early days, when captain Marissa Stryjewski led the Hawks through a winless start under coach Rob Schumann. Broadbent and Jen Valente were among the next strong class, and the 2007 group that included Jess Gruemken, Kait Renkewith, Sam LaCroce, Lauren Gentile and others won the team’s first NVL title.
The team won another NVL crown in 2009 with Steph Badale, Emily Hutvagner, Jess Patrizi and Heather Framski. Last year’s group, led by Tayler Boncal, Nicole Fowler and Amanda Poehailos, paved the way to a state final.
“As a coach, you get lucky to coach great teams,” Amato said. “This program started 12 years ago with designs on a state title under Rob Schumann. Things don’t happen by mistake. We have a great coaching staff building these girls.”
NVL’s drought-breaker: Woodland’s state championship was the second won by an NVL team but the first since Naugatuck won the 1978 Class M title. That was too long a gap for Amato’s liking.
“I thought to myself, ‘This has to change,’” Amato said. “I’m proud to be an NVL coach and I’m proud to see how far we’ve come in the 15 years I’ve been in the NVL. There are a lot of great coaches who are bringing their teams farther and farther in states, and I’m excited to be part of that.”
The foundation in the house: When Amato first saw that the state volleyball finals were going to be held at Berlin High, he figured the stars were aligned for his Hawks.
That was the site of Woodland’s 2012 semifinal win over Tolland, which stood as the program’s biggest win until last Saturday.
“When I saw on the schedule that it was going to be hosted here, I was like, ‘This is where it’s supposed to finish,’” Amato said.
There were plenty of familiar faces who saw the Hawks win Woodland’s first state title in any sport since 2005. Former Woodland athletic director Dan Scavone now holds the same post at Berlin, and former Woodland principal Arnold Frank sat next to former Hawks football coach Chris Anderson.
Those three — particularly Anderson — paved the way for the championship, according to Amato.
“Coach Anderson set a tone for this school and how we see ourselves athletically,” Amato said. “When he went to play out of league to get varsity games, that resonated with a lot of coaches. I saw that as a driving force for what I wanted my program to be — for us to be able to play anyone, anytime, anywhere.”
B-Pac’s the best: It was tough to get Amato to give Brianna Pacileo the compliments she deserved throughout the season. Now that it’s over, he won’t shy away.
“Brianna Pacileo is the best Woodland volleyball player we have seen,” Amato said. “She has the stats to back it up. She’s incredible to watch and I’ve been a lucky coach. She was determined to get better, and she likes to be the best at what she does.”
Pacileo is the program’s all-time leader in kills and aces, and she finished fourth and first in the state this year in those respective categories with 377 kills and 161 aces. She hit from anywhere on the floor — almost to a fault, Amato said — and usually didn’t take long to break through a hitting slump, like the one she faced at the end of the third game against Foran.
“The adrenaline overtakes me a little bit,” Pacileo said. “I just took a deep breath, refocused myself and told myself that I could do it.
Pacileo also played in Monday’s CHSCA Senior All-Star match, where she suited up for Amato one final time.
Not a one-trick pony: Pacileo may have been the Hawks’ star, but she was far from alone in winning a state championship.
Lee, the latest in a line of superb Woodland setters, finished third in the state with 715 assists. She spread around the attack among others besides Pacileo, including hitter Hannah Deegan and middles Abbey Rosato and Anna Khalid. Each of those three had at least 140 kills.
“It’s so even that she was doing it naturally,” Amato said of Lee’s passing. “That gave us the edge. We had Brianna Pacileo and other teams didn’t, but we also had Hannah Deegan, Anna Khalid and Abbey Rosato. Sam knew that.”
Lee thought the play of this year’s middles and defense helped put the team over the top, particularly in the final.
“Abbey and Anna did a good job of staying in the right spot for blocking, and they took on a lot of balls,” Lee said. “They got in those girls’ vision, and I think that threw them off a lot.”