EAST HAVEN — Three days after the Woodland girls played perhaps their best — and certainly biggest — volleyball match in school history in the Class M state semifinals, they needed to do it all over again for a state championship.
Unfortunately for the Hawks, a repeat performance didn’t come in last Saturday’s state final at East Haven High as No. 1 Woodland fell to No. 3 Ledyard 3-0 (25-17-, 25-23, 25-20).
A slew of mistakes throughout the match — especially after holding an eight-point lead in the second game — doomed the Hawks in their quest to win the first state championship of any girls team at Woodland.
“We made more mistakes than a championship-caliber team should make,” Woodland coach Jim Amato said. “We gave the momentum away and let them back in the game. When we were putting the ball down, we were able to generate some momentum ourselves.”
To make matters more difficult for the Hawks, they faced their first set of middle blockers all season.
The Colonels’ tandem of Kylie Fustini and Michelle Klinikowski dominated the net, combining for 18 kills and seven blocks. The 6-footers were tough to stop.
“It was the first time we met double middles like that,” Amato said. “Every time they rotated around there was someone else to hit out of the middle. Our strength is hitting from outside so we knew we would be able to do that, but we had to stay away from their blockers. They got a few on us and we weren’t able to break through.”
Fustini had a stretch of three straight blocks midway through the first game to help Ledyard (19-5) mount a 5-0 run and take a 13-7 lead. The Colonels cruised the rest of the way as Fustini made two of the game’s final three kills for a 25-17 victory.
“It definitely gives us a big advantage,” Fustini said of her partnership with Klinikowski.
“Middles usually aren’t the main players in girls high school volleyball, so to have not one but two middles gives us an edge.”
Woodland roared out to a 13-5 lead in the second game, thanks to a hot streak by Brianna Pacileo (seven kills) and Tayler Boncal (13 kills). But a 6-1 run by the Colonels on Arianna Fustini’s serve tightened up the game to 14-11.
Ledyard chipped away at the lead and made a match-changing run late, turning a 20-17 deficit into a 23-20 lead on two kills each by the Fustini sisters.
A Klinikowski block gave the Colonels three game points. Woodland saved two after a pair of Ledyard errors, but the Colonels salvaged their last chance and won the game on a Hawks passing error.
“We were a little nervous but we tried to pull it together and relax,” Klinikowski said. “We had to contain ourselves and get it back.”
Amato wasn’t sure which letdown — starting slowly in the first game or letting the second slip away — was more damaging.
“It’s difficult to say exactly where the momentum shifted,” Amato said. “We dropped some serves in the first set. Our passes were off. We didn’t have the ability to generate the offense like we normally do that keeps us in games.”
The Hawks made 16 errors from the floor and six service errors compared to 13 kills and three aces in the first two games. Woodland also served just six aces, eight fewer than its total in a semifinal sweep of Tolland.
Still, Amato credited his defense with keeping Woodland in the match against Ledyard’s tough hitters.
“We had some great back-row defense,” Amato said. “Nicole Fowler was all over the place picking stuff up. Even if it was coming down hard, it was contested.”
The two middles were back at it in the third. They helped break a 13-all tie by mounting a 9-2 run, including two kills by Klinikowski and one by Kylie Fustini, to take a 22-15 lead.
Kylie’s final kill gave Ledyard five championship points at 24-19, and two points later younger sister Arianna slammed the winner off Erin Wester’s block.
“I’ve been pushing them for all-state, both of them,” Ledyard coach Shirley Karkow said of Kylie Fustini and Klinikowski. “Somebody asked me which one do I think (deserves it more) and I told them that’s like picking your favorite child.”
The Hawks made the final after a somewhat unexpected run through the Class M bracket after a disappointing, 3-0 loss to Seymour in the Naugatuck Valley League tournament semifinals. That loss preceded the deepest run for any Woodland team in state play since 2005, when the football team won the Class SS state title.
“If you saw us play in the NVL tournament, you would have in no way prepared to see us in the finals,” Amato said. “To see how this team was playing earlier in the season to (now) was shocking, impressive and inspiring. It made me proud as a coach.”
After earning a first-round bye, Woodland beat No. 17 Stratford 3-1 in the second round and held off powerful No. 8 Plainfield 3-2 in the quarterfinals.
The Hawks played perhaps the best match in program history in last Wednesday’s semifinals, a 3-0 (25-16, 25-16, 25-23) sweep of No. 5 Tolland at Berlin High.
Boncal was superb in that match, tallying 12 kills and eight aces. Pacileo also had eight kills and three aces, Abbey Rosato chipped in five kills and two blocks, and Samantha Lee added 25 assists and two aces.
Woodland led nearly the entire way, cruising through the first two games before rallying from a 22-19 deficit in the third to take the win. A Boncal kill off the Tolland block clinched a berth in the state final.
“I’ve been dreaming of this since I was a little kid,” Boncal said after the semifinal. “I can’t believe this is a reality. It’s amazing.”
Even though Woodland didn’t bring back a state championship to Beacon Falls, Boncal’s own word — “amazing” — very well sums up one of the school’s greatest seasons of all time.
“They were reaching for the stars,” Amato said, “and sometimes you bump into a planet.”