By Elio Gugliotti and Kevin Roberts, Staff
WATERBURY — A year after the COVID-19 pandemic forced an abrupt end to the fall high school sports season, Woodland started this season trying to find its footing on the volleyball court.
The Hawks solidified their footing after a 1-2 start to make a run to the Naugatuck Valley League championship game Nov. 3 at Kennedy High against undefeated and top-seeded Seymour.
No. 3 Woodland won the first two sets — a feat no other team has done this year against the Wildcats — only to see Seymour rally for a 3-2 win. The set scores were 23-25, 20-25, 25-18, 25-13, 15-13.
“Seymour has proven that they’ve been undefeated all season long and they continued that going into the postseason,” Woodland coach Jim Amato said.
Amato credited adjustments made by Seymour coach Cathy Federowicz, specifically moving Ari-Anna Smith from the weak side to the outside in sets 3 and 4, and more accurate hitting from Seymour’s Kenzie Sirowich in helping to turn the tide for the Wildcats (21-0).
“We started passing a little off in sets 3 and 4 and just couldn’t capitalized on offense after that,” he added.
Woodland (17-6) received tremendous efforts from the likes of Maille Ianniruberto (7 kills) and Kylie Bulinski (30 assists). Ianniruberto repeatedly stung Seymour at the net with her blocks and hard hits while Bulinski’s serve was a problem for the Wildcats. The Hawks also got some solid serving from Ally Lisowski (7 kills, 13 points), Rory Nolan (23 digs) and Kalle Legassey (14 kills, 30 digs) in the first two sets. There was a 19-19 tie in each of the first two sets, and Legassey was at the service line as Woodland grabbed the lead both times.
Smith started getting touches and putting away big hits for Seymour in the third set. Izzy Sands served nine straight points in the fourth set as the Wildcats claimed a commanding 16-6 lead.
In the fifth set, Seymour held several tenuous leads, only to see Woodland come back again and again. When Legassey blasted away for a kill, it was 12-12. A serve into the net gave Seymour the lead at 13-12. With a 14-13 lead, Lauren Golobieski put down the final point and set off a Wildcat celebration.
Amato said shaking off the sluggish start in September “was just a matter of trying to find the pieces and putting them in the right place.”
“I thought that Kalle Legassey has come back and exerted her dominance on the court. Kylie Bulinski knows how to spread the floor and put everything where it needs to be and Maille is a force to be reckoned with at the net,” he said.
Amato also pointed to the effort the Hawks give in practice each day, especially from Juliana Rubino, Ava Cratty, Samantha Sosnovich, Rebecca Swift and Emma Fabrizi.
“The only reason we got this far, we’re lucky enough to play against an entire other varsity team that can go out and win, as well,” Amato said. “The girls that you don’t see in the paper are the ones that put us on the court tonight.”
Amato said the Hawks can use the big-game experience they gained in the NVL final in the state tournament.
“Every time you can take a team to five sets, you learn a little bit about your own team and where you have to strengthen,” he said.
Woodland is the No. 8 seed in Class M and is set to host No. 25 Sacred Heart Academy in the first round Nov. 8. A win will advance the Hawks to the second round Nov. 10 to face either No. 24 Abbott Tech or No. 9 Plainville winner.
The Hawks reached the final with a 3-2 (25-22, 23-25, 25-16, 22-25, 15-5) win over No. 6 Torrington in the quarterfinals Oct. 30 and a 3-0 (25-19, 25-21, 25-18) win over No. 2 Naugatuck in the semifinals Nov. 1.
Naugatuck (18-4) entered the NVL tournament as the reigning league champions from 2019. The Greyhounds opened the tourney with a sweep of No. 7 Watertown, 3-0 (25-13, 25-11, 25-15), Oct. 30 in the quarterfinals.
Kendall Allen had 19 kills, and Nadia Cestari had 28 assists and 16 service points to lead the Greyhounds. Kaylee Jackson had 10 kills and 12 service points, and Samantha Mullin added two kills, two aces and two assists.
Allen had 12 kills and 13 digs, Jackson added 10 kills and Nadia Cestari chipped in 19 assists in the semifinal loss to Woodland.
Naugatuck earned the No. 5 seed in Class LL and a bye in the first round. The Greyhounds will host either No. 21 New Britain or No. 12 Fairfield Ludlowe in the second round Nov. 11.