Woodland reaches the mountaintop

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Woodland volleyball players celebrate after beating Foran High 3-1 to win the Class M championship at Berlin High in Berlin Nov. 16. –RA ARCHIVE
Woodland volleyball players celebrate after beating Foran High 3-1 to win the Class M championship at Berlin High in Berlin Nov. 16. –RA ARCHIVE

BERLIN — The ascent of the Woodland girls volleyball program — not discouraged, but encouraged by a state championship loss a year ago — is finally complete.

No. 1-seeded Woodland became the first Naugatuck Valley League team in 35 years to win a state volleyball championship last Saturday at Berlin High by taking the Class M crown with a 3-1 (25-15, 25-23, 23-25, 25-15) victory over No. 6 Foran.

“It’s surreal. I feel like I’m dreaming,” Woodland senior setter Samantha Lee said. “It’s unimaginable that we didn’t come out on top last time, yet we came back this year and won it.”

The title, which is the program’s first and school’s first in any sport since 2005, came in the Hawks’ second straight trip to the final. They suffered a 3-0 loss to Ledyard last November when they knew they were in a little over their heads.        

“Last year we walked into the match and had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,” star hitter Brianna Pacileo said. “This year, we knew what we felt last year and we knew what we had to do differently to win it.”

Pacileo, as usual, led Woodland (24-1) and its multifaceted attack. The tournament MVP recorded a match-high 21 kills in the final outing of her all-state career, which gave the NVL its first state champion since Naugatuck in 1978.

It took a while for Woodland coach Jim Amato, who finally has his state title after eight years at the helm, to find words to capture his emotions.

“You get to the point where you make plans and you make them so big — things that haven’t been done in 35 years or in your school’s history — that when you achieve them, it’s overwhelming,” Amato said.

The Hawks stormed out to a 2-0 lead in the match thanks to a dominant effort in the first game and a furious comeback in the second. They led almost wire to wire in the first, which included a late 3-0 service run by Pacileo and a clinching Jillian Gorman serve that went unreturned.

Foran (16-8) opened the second game with an 8-0 lead, but Lee erased the deficit with a 7-0 service run to tie the game at 8-all. A back-and-forth game found itself tied at 23-23, when Abbey Rosato pounded a kill off the block to set up a game point. On the next point, Rachel Starkey made a diving dig to keep the ball alive and Pacileo drilled a kill from the back row to give Woodland the 2-0 advantage.

“Practicing against Bree, I’ve gotten used to (making tough digs),” Starkey said. “Bree is terrifying so I’m used to it.”

“Rachel Starkey came to play,” Amato said of his libero. “She wears pink so everybody on the other side of the net knows where to hit the ball, and if they make a mistake and don’t hit it near her, she’ll run and get it.”

Foran erased an 11-4 deficit in the third and eventually tied up the score. Both teams held one-point leads late in the game and tied again at 23-all, with the Hawks just two points away from the championship. But Woodland, which committed a series of errors in letting the Lions back into the match, handed away the game on a pair of errors after a Foran timeout.

There was no panic for the Hawks, who lost at least one game in each of previous four postseason games and felt like they were still in control.

“It wasn’t slipping away,” Pacileo said. “We had our errors and our mistakes, but everyone makes those and we fixed them to pull through.”

“We went through most of our season losing the third game, so we knew we could come back,” Lee added. “We knew they were our mistakes that put us in that spot in the first place.”

Woodland’s Samantha Lee (17) sets a ball against Foran High during the Class M championship at Berlin High in Berlin Nov. 16. Woodland won, 3-1, as Lee served out the last seven points to clinch the title. –RA ARCHIVE
Woodland’s Samantha Lee (17) sets a ball against Foran High during the Class M championship at Berlin High in Berlin Nov. 16. Woodland won, 3-1, as Lee served out the last seven points to clinch the title. –RA ARCHIVE

Lee was the driving force in Woodland’s title-clinching game. Taking serve with an 18-15 lead, she served out the last seven points, including an ace to set up match point.

“I’m actually pretty good at staying calm in those situations,” Lee said. “I don’t get too nervous because I know that if I make it a good serve, my team will protect it.”

“She’s a competitor,” Amato said. “That’s one of the reasons I call her General Lee. Someone has to run the floor and put up with me all the time.”

Pacileo was Lee’s best protection, hammering consecutive kills to give Woodland a 21-15 edge. The Hawks won the championship on a Foran attack error, which sent Woodland’s bench into an on-court pileup.

“We didn’t play not to lose; we played to win,” Pacileo said. “There was no hesitation and we went out there aggressively.

“It’s one thing to get where we did, but it’s another thing to finish it — and we did.”