Dedication and drive guided Hawks to title

Woodland volleyball players celebrate after beating Foran High, 3-1, to win the Class M championship at Berlin High School in November 2013. –RA ARCHIVE

This is the first story of a month-long series commemorating anniversaries of significant moments in Woodland and Naugatuck sports history. Our first story looks at the five-year anniversary of Woodland’s 2013 girls volleyball state championship.

Three-hundred sixty-six days before Woodland played for the 2013 Class M state volleyball championship at Berlin High, coach Jim Amato waited outside the bus with his Hawks after they’d just been swept by Ledyard in the 2012 title game at East Haven High.

“All the girls were really quiet,” Amato recalled. “They said, ‘We’re going to finish this next year.’”

Fast-forward to Woodland’s chance at redemption that Saturday afternoon in mid-November, and Amato couldn’t stop thinking about that moment by the bus as the Hawks closed in on their elusive state championship.

“Being in that chair and watching the girls play, I thought, ‘Wow, we did it,’” Amato said. “It’s a hard thing to get back there at that level. The dedication and the drive they showed to get back to that moment was so strong.”

Woodland, the tournament’s top seed, eventually finished off a decisive, 3-1 victory over No. 6-seeded Foran of Milford. With game scores of 25-15, 25-23, 23-25, and 25-15, the Hawks became the first Naugatuck Valley League school to win a state championship in volleyball since Naugatuck in 1978.

The Hawks were one of the state’s best teams all season, going 19-1 during the regular season and cruising to the NVL championship. They were powered by All-State outside hitter Brianna Pacileo, who averaged 15 kills and six aces per match and went on to have a four-year volleyball career at Division I Hartford, and All-NVL setter Samantha Lee, who averaged 29 assists and nine digs per match before a four-year softball career at Division III Becker.

“They were great players and understood their roles,” Amato said. “One of the things that was great about Bri is that she knew she was good, but she liked sharing the spotlight. Sammy’s distribution kept everyone involved. If one team focused on Bri, Sam spread the ball to everyone else.”

Woodland survived a tough road to the final. After a first-round bye, the Hawks squeaked out five-game wins over No. 16 East Catholic and No. 8 Tolland to reach the semifinals. There, they earned a 3-1 victory over No. 5 Waterford to get back to the state final.

When the Hawks hit the floor in Berlin, Amato remembered feeling at ease with the way his team looked.

“They were loose during the warmups,” Amato said. “They were enjoying the game and enjoying the moment. I remember looking at (assistant coach Chris) Tomlin and saying, ‘We’re good. We’ve got this.’ I think they surprised themselves with how fast they came out.”

Woodland led almost the entire way in the first game and cruised to a 25-15 victory, but Foran pounced out to an 8-0 lead in the second. The Hawks put a stop to that when they earned back serve for Lee, who went on a seven-point run to tie the game at 8-all. Pacileo eventually clinched the game with a kill after a diving dig by Rachel Starkey.

“Bri was just crushing it,” Amato said of Pacileo, who finished with a match-high 21 kills, 12 digs, and five aces en route to tournament MVP honors. “We were using her on the weak side, too, which was a lot of fun.”

The Hawks lost the third game — “they got so excited knowing they were going to win,” Amato said — before rebounding for a dominant fourth-game win. Lee served out the last seven points of the match, including an ace to set up match point.

“I had Coach Amato giving me signs of what spot to serve to and I was able to hit almost every spot,” Lee recalled. “That was a really fun way to go out, having that connection with my coach.”

Woodland’s Anna Khalid celebrates with teammates after beating Foran High 3-1 to win the CIAC Class M championship at Berlin High School in November 2013. -RA ARCHIVE

The state championship was the culmination of a change in the program’s philosophy that Amato instituted in 2009, his fourth season as head coach.

“We wanted everyone to clear their schedule through the state championship,” said Amato, who will begin his 13th season leading the Hawks later this month. “We made a change from wanting to win the NVL championship and then see how far we could go in states to setting our goal to get to the state championship.”

A few hours after that philosophical shift had finally paid off, the team disembarked the bus at Woodland and brought it in for one last break.

“We did our last huddle-up — ‘Hawks!’ — and none of us left,” Lee recalled. “We just stood there because none of us wanted the season and our time together to end. I think that’s why we were such a successful group as a whole — we all loved the sport and had so much fun together.”

It was a team led by superstars in Pacileo and Lee but propelled by role players such as Starkey, Hannah Deegan, Abbey Rosato, Anna Khalid, Jillian Gorman, Machol Butler, and Ashley Michie.

“We didn’t just have superstars,” Amato said. “We had an entire constellation.”