Family atmosphere fueled run to NVL volleyball title

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By Ken Morse, Citizen’s News

From left, Naugatuck’s Shannon Mesaros, Stacey Cypher, Lauren Fitzgerald, Stephanie Dunn, Nicole Plourde and Jen Butkus celebrate after a victory in the NVL volleyball tournament in the fall of 2001. –NAUGATUCK NEWS

This is the fourth, and final, story of our annual series commemorating anniversaries of significant moments in local sports history. This week’s story looks back at the 20-year anniversary of Naugatuck’s run to the NVL volleyball tournament championship.

When you talk to any athlete who played for the late Naugatuck coach Fred Scheithe, two words always come up: fun and family.

Twenty years after the 2001 Naugatuck volleyball team won the Naugatuck Valley League tournament championship that is what everyone remembers: fun and family.

“It was such a memorable season. We had so much fun with Coach Scheithe, Coach Kevin Wesche and, before he went to Woodland, our freshman coach Jim Amato. They made a huge impact on me and led me to become a teacher and a coach,” said Shannon (Mesaros) Russell, an All-NVL and All-State front row player who was inducted into the Naugatuck Hall of Fame in 2017 and now lives in Florida, where she teaches at a middle school and coaches volleyball.

Russell was a dominating force at the net and Jen Butkus, a varsity player since her freshman year, was the team’s setter. The team had a solid cast in Nicole Plourde, Stephanie Dunn, Lauren Fitzgerald, Alison Rossi and Stacey Cypher.

“This was my first year as an assistant coach,” said Wesche, who is now head coach. “The players were relaxed and the pressure was on everyone else. We had nothing to lose and just went out there and gave it our all. It was an exciting season that brought out the best in Naugatuck volleyball.”

After losing twice to Seymour in the regular season, the No. 3-seeded Greyhounds took on No. 2 Seymour in the semifinals of the tournament. The third time proved to be the charm as Naugy swept Seymour, 3-0 (16-14, 15-8, 15-9).

Fitzgerald ripped off a four-point run to close out the first game for Naugatuck. Dunn turned the tide in the second game with an eight-point service run, and it was Plourde’s five side out kills in game three that sent Naugy to the finals.

“Seymour was our biggest rival,” Dunn said. “We fought hard for that win. It was such a tightknit group, we were so close since our freshman year. It was great to be part of that team all four years. I can’t thank them enough for those four amazing years of memories.”

Naugatuck faced No. 4 Wolcott, which knocked off top-seeded Holy Cross, in the final.

Rossi turned a slim 7-6 lead in game one into a victory with an eight-point service run. In game two, Wolcott scratched and clawed to stay in it. Only two points were scored over a period of 44 volleys before Wolcott went on to tie the match 1-1.

Naugatuck’s Alison Rossi goes for a kill as Nicole Plourde looks on during in the NVL volleyball tournament action in the fall of 2001. –NAUGATUCK NEWS

It was all Naugy after that. The Greyhounds claimed a 3-1 (15-6, 12-15, 15-5, 15-9) victory and the championship. Butkus delivered 37 assists and Russell had 21 kills and 10 blocks.

“It was an amazing feeling to finish our senior year on top and we carried that momentum to the state quarterfinals,” Russell said. “We knew we were the best team out there and we played our best, and for one night we were fantastic. Such an incredible memory.”

The team’s chemistry developed well before 2001. Most of the players grew up playing youth sports together and were friends by the time they got to high school.

“They were friends on and off the court,” said Jeanne Scheithe, Fred’s wife, who supported every team her husband coached. “I think that was the key to their success, they knew each other so well.”

Scheithe said Fred fostered a family environment that included activities outside of volleyball. If he felt the team was pressing, she said, he would take the team out for pizza and they weren’t allowed to even talk about volleyball.

“I think that really helped them to come together as a team, have some fun and it took a lot of pressure off them,” she said. “Fred had a special gift working with kids and had a way of relating to each player differently, helping them to get the most out of their ability.”