BY KYLE BRENNAN
Coaches who own state championship rings often think about the preseason and the regular season differently than their title-less rivals.
Woodland volleyball coach Jim Amato, coach of the 2013 Class M champs, thinks particularly about the purpose of schedule scrimmages and nonconference regular-season matchups. He’s settled on one conclusion.
“They’ve never given me a trophy or banner for being undefeated,” Amato said. “It’s more about, how are we going to sharpen our skills? We look for other teams who we’ve played against and had great battles with.”
Amato, who also coaches the Oxford boys team in the spring and club volleyball in the offseason, has developed a strong network of coaching colleagues that allow him to stack Woodland’s schedule — even if that means he anticipates a few losses along the way.
That was the case Sept. 12 at Amity, a perennial powerhouse with 11 state championships in its history, including a Class LL crown in 2018. Woodland lost, 3-1, despite taking the first set from the Spartans.
The Hawks don’t like losing, but they see the bigger picture behind stacking the nonconference slate.
“There are only a couple of good teams in the NVL, and playing volleyball when it’s more aggressive is more fun,” said senior Kalle Legassey, who had five kills, two aces and 13 digs against Amity. “I love when it’s intense. We all elevate and get better.”
That was the case in the preseason, too. Amato lined up three scrimmages against Jonathan Law, Northwestern and Shelton, plus an eight-team jamboree at East Haven.
“This year, the team we have needed more time on court in the preseason to find how we jelled and make some decisions,” Amato said. “That helped build our cohesiveness early in the season.”
Senior Maille Ianniruberto, who had four kills, three aces and two blocks against Amity, enjoyed the preseason challenges.
“I thought it was fun competition to get us ready for the season,” Ianniruberto said. “I was excited to play the bigger teams because they’re harder competition than the NVL. Playing harder competition helps us be more comfortable in the NVL.”
The Hawks are usually in the league’s championship conversation with Seymour and Naugatuck, although Woodland hasn’t added to its NVL title banner since 2015. Last year, Woodland’s quest to break that dry spell ended in a loss to Seymour in the league final.
Legassey and Ianniruberto said they, along with fellow seniors Samantha Sosnovich, Emma Fabrizi and Ava Cratty, knew the Hawks’ championship hopes this season would depend on their ability to play as a cohesive team. In addition to most of the starters playing club volleyball together, they also played together in a high school summer league.
“We made a commitment that we want to be good this year,” Legassey said. “How do we do that? We have to practice together, so we did that on our own time.”
Woodland opened the regular season with a 3-1 nonleague victory against Brookfield on Sept. 8, and the Hawks had two other nonconference foes remaining: Pomperaug on Sept. 19 and East Haven on Oct. 12.
In those matches, compared to NVL matches like a 3-1 win over Oxford on Sept. 13 and an early-season test against Naugatuck on Sept. 16, Legassey said the team actually feels less stress than it does playing more familiar opponents.
“I feel like we maybe put less pressure on ourselves,” Legassey said. “Yeah, we want to perform, but it doesn’t count for anything [toward the NVL standings]. It’s more for our personal goals and getting better.”
BY KYLE BRENNAN