Hawks turn defense into offense

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BEACON FALLS — Volleyball, like most sports, is all about scoring points. But for the new-look Woodland spikers, their strength is refusing to give up many points.

The Hawks, who opened this season with only two players who saw meaningful time on last year’s state semifinalist squad, rocketed off to a 7-1 start this fall thanks to a scrappy and relentless defensive attitude that’s slowly turning into offensive improvement.

“Our defense is going to be able to run with any team,” Woodland coach Jim Amato said. “That helps as we’re growing and developing at the front of the net. Even our middle hitters, they’re starting to come of age in transitioning from defense to offense. They touch so many balls on the block, and they’re learning how to come back off and be ready to put the ball back over.”

That was evident Thursday night when the Hawks rallied from a 2-0 deficit to edge St. Paul, 3-2. Key points in the final set involved deflections by Woodland’s net players that slowed the ball and eventually set up kills — a few game-changers by junior Elayna Beutel.

The match against the Falcons, who entered that match with only a few forfeit defeats and otherwise unbeaten, served as a shot in the arm for Woodland, which came into the match on the heels of a 3-0 defeat against Seymour on Tuesday.

“It’s a confidence booster,” senior co-captain and setter Mary Pelkey said. “It feels awesome to win, but it feels awesome to play. In those first two sets (against St. Paul), we kind of forgot that we love volleyball. Once we were playing in the third, fourth, fifth, we remembered why we love this sport.”

Woodland’s back-row defense has been spectacular, led by junior libero May Dawes, junior Joanna Emin and sophomore Brooke Johnson. That trio frustrated the Wildcats’ heavy-hitting lineup in the teams’ first meeting and pushed the defending state champs to the brink in each of the first two sets.

“Our defense is stout,” Amato said. “We’re scoring points off our defense.”

The Hawks may not have any stars yet on this squad, but Amato has started to use a slew of different players from the bench to exploit other teams’ weaknesses. Kylie Bulinski and Pelkey, both setters, rarely leave the floor, but the rest of the group constantly rotates. That unit includes Katie Sirowich, Isabella Fabrizi, Sydney Harrison, Alexandra Lisowski, Allyson Koliani and others.

“In a lot of our wins, it hasn’t been the same rotation starting a match that finishes the match,” Amato said. “It’s about who’s ready to go and whose skills are what we need against each team. We have hitters with different speeds, so sometimes it’s about determining which speed of a hitter will work against the opposing floor.”

Most importantly, the mix of players continues to learn how to function as a unit.

“We are a completely different team (since the start of the preseason),” Pelkey said. “Nobody had played varsity. We had a mish-mash of everybody, and we didn’t know how to play together. Over these last few weeks, we’ve really learned how to play as a team.”

After road matches against Naugatuck (Friday) and Torrington (Tuesday), Woodland will return home Thursday to host Wilby.