WATERBURY — The Hawks had their chance to close out Oxford in the fourth game of the Naugatuck Valley League volleyball championship in front of a raucous crowd Nov. 5 at Kennedy High School. But a string of service errors left the door open for the Wolverines, who forced a fifth and decisive game to determine the champion.
Heading into the fifth set, Woodland’s wily coach Jim Amato had some sage advice for his Hawks in regards to the service errors.
“In set five I said, ‘Stop doing that,’ and then they did,” Amato said.
The second-seeded Hawks heeded their coach’s advice and cruised to a 15-8 win in the fifth set to claim the NVL crown, 3-2 (15-25, 25-20, 25-20, 20-25, 15-8), over No. 5-seeded Oxford.
“Both teams battled to get to this point,” Amato said. “And even in the final match it was a battle to find out who was going to come out on the other end of it.”
Woodland senior libero Cameron Caswell fueled the Hawks’ dominance in the fifth set with a seven-point service run that turned a 2-1 deficit into a commanding 8-2 lead.
“I knew our team had it the entire time,” Caswell said. “Just the way we worked well with each other and brought each other up when we saw someone down, making them smile. It’s just amazing.”
Caswell (23 digs, seven aces) was named the tournament MVP, an honor she attributed to the effort of her teammates.
“They helped me get this award,” Caswell said. “They push me to do my hardest. … I can’t thank them enough.”
The title didn’t come easily for Woodland (19-2). Oxford (16-7) took the first set thanks in large part to hitting errors by Woodland.
The Hawks settled down after the first game to take the next two sets.
“We realized it was most of our mistakes,” senior Jenna Boncal said. “So, if we just minimize that and keep pushing to be smarter than Oxford then we could keep going. And our momentum was so up that we just kept it.”
The Hawks appeared to be on their way to wrapping up the title in the fourth set after getting out to an early 4-0 lead, but Oxford battled back. Four service errors by Woodland in the set swung the momentum in the Wolverines’ favor, and it was on to game five.
Despite the intensity in the gym and the high stakes, the Hawks continued to play loose and fed off each other throughout the final.
“We just keep going off of each other’s momentum,” said senior Carla Piccolo, who tallied 14 kills, 10 assists, 18 digs. “So, if one person does something good it gets the whole team pumped up.”
In the fifth set, it was Oxford that came unraveled as miscues mounted for the Wolverines. The Hawks took full advantage, and the trophy home.
The NVL volleyball title is the Hawks’ fourth in nine seasons. Woodland won the championship in 2013, 2009 and 2007, as well. Woodland’s resume also includes a state title in 2013.
What’s the secret to the Hawks’ success?
“Odd number years,” Amato said. “We’re hoping to clean it up and break in some even years, try something new.”
All kidding aside, Amato placed the credit squarely on the shoulders of his players.
“Without all eight of the girls playing on the court tonight, we don’t get the job done,” Amato said.
Amato added, “Sam (White) really decided to start hitting the ball late in the match. McKenna (Cronin) started playing smart. Our blockers got up and just frustrated them at the net. And our defense; what can you say about the all-tournament MVP Cameron Caswell, she likes to keep that floor clean, and then she came and brought her serve in game five, amazing.”
White (11 kills, 12 digs, two aces) said the team has been wanting to bring the trophy back to Woodland ever since the Hawks last won it in 2013. The Hawks fell in last year’s final to Seymour.
“It was painful last year, but I think we used a lot of last year toward this year,” White said. “We know the pain of losing this game. We know how much hard work goes into this game. And I just think there was no way we were losing tonight.”
When asked what they attributed the success to, Boncal and White wasted no time in crediting their head coach, who has a way of always keeping things light.
“If we ever make a mistake [Amato] will never be one of those coaches to yell at us,” Boncal said. “He’s always encouraged us to tweak it differently. He just motivates us to the max.”
“He knows what he’s doing,” White added.
The Hawks earned the No. 1 seed in the Class M tournament. Woodland, which earned a bye in the first round, is scheduled to host No. 16 Tolland (10-10) or No. 17 Prince (10-10) Wednesday.