Hawks bring NVL title back home

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The Hawks, from left, Brianna Pacileo (15), Hannah Deegan (7), Samantha Lee (17) and Rachel Starkey (34), celebrate after a point is made against Torrington during the NVL title game Oct. 30 at Kennedy High School in Waterbury. Woodland won the game 3-1 to claim the team’s first NVL title since 2009. –RA ARCHIVE
The Hawks, from left, Brianna Pacileo (15), Hannah Deegan (7), Samantha Lee (17) and Rachel Starkey (34), celebrate after a point is made against Torrington during the NVL title game Oct. 30 at Kennedy High School in Waterbury. Woodland won the game 3-1 to claim the team’s first NVL title since 2009. –RA ARCHIVE

WATERBURY — Trailing by a game in a volleyball match is a position in which the Woodland girls rarely find themselves. So when that situation came to fruition after the opening game of last Wednesday’s Naugatuck Valley League volleyball final at Kennedy High, the Hawks looked concerned.

It didn’t take long for Woodland coach Jim Amato to lighten the mood in the stunned huddle and turn around the night.

“I asked them what the fox says,” Amato said. “And then I told them, ‘Mo-mo, mo-mo, mo-mo. That’s what the fox says: Momentum.’”

Almost immediately, the Hawks grabbed it. They swept the next three games to claim their first NVL title since 2009 in a 3-1 (24-26, 25-16, 25-23, 25-19) victory over No. 2 seed Torrington.

Woodland’s turnaround took almost no time at the start of the second game. Brianna Pacileo, who was held to just three kills in an extended first game, pounded three spikes within the Hawks’ first nine points of the second to give Woodland a 9-3 lead.

“We know how to pump each other up,” said Pacileo, who earned NVL tournament MVP honors. “When we get in those huddles, we know exactly what to say to each other. Once we build up that hype, there’s no stopping us.”

Woodland (21-1) coasted through the second game, powered in part by a four-point series in which middle hitter Abbey Rosato made two blocks and two kills to make it a 21-8 game.

Rosato was part of a middle trio that also included Anna Khalid and Machol Butler, who each shined at different points in the match. Khalid spiked the final point of the second game and Butler entered to provide a boost in the third that lasted the rest of the way.

“We have three very good middles, and everybody is taught the same system all season long,” Amato said. “At this point in the season, each one of them can play at an elevated level. Machol sat on the bench and came in with intensity. She brought the mo-mo.”

Woodland setter Samantha Lee, who finished with a match-high 39 assists, had plenty of options all night. Pacileo led the way with a match-high 18 kills, but the middle trio and outside hitter Hannah Deegan also figured prominently in the attack.

Woodland's Jillian Gorman (2) returns the ball during the NVL title game Oct. 30 against Torrington at Kennedy High School in Waterbury. Woodland won the game, 3-1, to claim the team’s first NVL title since 2009. –RA ARCHIVE
Woodland’s Jillian Gorman (2) returns the ball during the NVL title game Oct. 30 against Torrington at Kennedy High School in Waterbury. Woodland won the game, 3-1, to claim the team’s first NVL title since 2009. –RA ARCHIVE

“I had to figure out who had the hot hand and give it to the right side of the floor,” said Lee, who was also named to the all-NVL tournament team.

Torrington stayed with Woodland the entire way through the third, a game that included 11 ties and eight lead changes. The Red Raiders held a 23-22 lead but a kill by Khalid gave back serve to the Hawks and Jill Gorman. Deegan pounded consecutive kills to clinch the game.

“I know Bree gets a lot of the attention with sets, so I know that when I get it that I have to make the most of it,” said Deegan, who also tapped the title-clinching kill over a block to end the match. “When it comes to me I know I have to put it away. I tried my best to get the last points.”

The Hawks never trailed in the fourth, helped by a red-hot start by Pacileo. She notched eight of her 18 kills in the game, including winners on Woodland’s first four points of the game.

“I mean, I had a few kills here and there,” Pacileo said, “but my team was behind me the whole way.”

Her setter wasn’t nearly as modest.

“You can tell when she gets up that it’s going to go straight down,” Lee said. “You can see it. It gets really exciting.”

Woodland, which reached the Class M state final last year, opens up state tournament play at home Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. against No. 16 East Catholic. A second-round victory would send the Hawks to Friday night’s quarterfinals, which would be in Beacon Falls.

“This season isn’t over yet,” Pacileo said following the NVL title win. “This isn’t good enough for us. Now we’re going for the state title.”