By MICHAEL LETENDRE
EAST HAVEN – The Bristol Eastern volleyball team is once again on top of the world and it’s a place the Lancers’ program knows oh so well.
After a trip to the Class LL quarterfinals one season ago, the Lancers bounced right back in the thick of things in the Class L bracket in 2012.
And after a three set sweep of East Lyme, the Bristol Eastern squad reclaimed the title of champion, defeating the tough Vikings to seize the biggest prize in the state on Saturday, Nov. 17 behind sets of 25-12, 25-21 and 25-20.
Eastern finished its stellar campaign as the CCC South champion, the CCC Tournament champion and now, added the title Class L champion off the power of a 23-1 ledger.
After being forced into a four-game war with RHAM for the second time this season two days previous, the Lancers disposed of East Lyme – the two-time defending Class L champs – with relative ease before a raucous crowd at the East Haven High School gymnasium.
For Eastern, finishing one of its best campaigns of all time with just the one loss, it was all about team and on the biggest stage of the season, the final act earned a standing ovation.
Karissa Smith was named Most Valuable Player of the game and frankly, she was the MVP of Eastern’s entire playoff run to the championship with the showing against East Lyme a little icing on the celebratory cake.
Smith ended her scholastic career with an impressive eight kills, 11 digs, two aces, two blocks and went 16-for-17 from the serving front.
The Vikings did not have a single player to match up with the powerful Smith and when setter Brianna Root found the powerful hitter, it was lights out.
The Lancers’ senior core also included outstanding games from Beth Cucka (8 kills, 1 block) and Jessica Hubina (5 kills, 1 ace, 3 digs, 7-for-9 serving) while junior Cheyenne Orsi (5 kills, 8 blocks,1 dig) was exactly the defensive cog Eastern needed in the game.
Jenna Rodjenski (6 digs, 2 blocks, 2 digs, 12-for-14 serving) and Maggie Getler (2 digs, 12-for-12 serving) also played well and Root (24 assists, 7 digs, 2 kills, ace,12-for-12 serving) did her best Rajon Rondo impersonation on the court and simply was everywhere Eastern needed her to be, which also included a loud block in the second set.
Bailey Wyrebek (3-for-4 serving) and Brooke Johnson also contributed to the victorious effort for the Lancers.
Eastern’s defense just smothered the Vikings and if East Lyme couldn’t get the ball above the front line of Cucka, Smith and Orsi, the ball was quickly smashed right back to the other side of the net.
“Obviously, they’ve got the height which you can’t teach in drills or anything else,” said East Lyme coach Jack Biggs. “But besides the height, they have a great team. They play great defense. They’re scrappy. If they’re not the number one team in the state, they have to be (right) after one or two.”
The Vikings (21-4) remained pesky throughout the game and simply would not go away quietly but was denied a third, straight Class L championship.
But after Eastern squashed the East Lyme outfit 25-12 in the first set of action, it was simply a matter of time before the Lancers put the contest away for good.
“They made us work hard,” said Eastern coach Stacy Rivoira of East Lyme. “I didn’t think it was our best game by any means. But they won and I think they played well. They are very deserving.”
Kayla Fobian led East Lyme with nine kills, setter Jill Bartlett chipped in with 19 assists while Devine Perez showed some fire with seven kills and two blocks.
But when the Vikings needed to string together points to get back into the fray, Eastern proved to be too tough and once the Lancers established leads in each of the three sets, it was hard for the defending champs to sneak back into the game.
The showdown featured three lead changes and 11 ties but in that first set, the tone of the match was set as East Lyme started in a hole and never dug its way out.
Hubina got the ball rolling in the first period as an early ace led Eastern to a 3-0 tilt and the flow of the match was all but set.
Each and every Vikings’ run was met by an Eastern jaunt of its own and even as East Lyme got it to 6-5, a quick 6-0 burst – highlighted by an Orsi block and several long kills – the Lancers posted a 12-5 edge.
Off a hit by Fobian that was not returned by the Lancers, the Vikings got within 14-10 but the momentum was quickly extinguished by some outstanding Eastern defense.
Eastern went on a blazing 11-3 run to end the game as blocks by Orsi, clean aces from Root and Getler, and a couple Smith kills gave the Lancers a 25-12 victory and a 1-0 stranglehold on the match.
The 13-point win by the Lancers seemed to snuff the life out of the Vikings and while the team gamely tried to remain in the hunt, the fray seemed all but over.
However, Eastern hardly rested on its laurels and got right back to work.
“We definitely knew we had a secure chance of winning but we didn’t want to get too overconfident because teams have taken the first game from us (before),” said Smith. “We knew we just had to keep pounding it out on them (East Lyme).”
The Vikings showed some fight, taking a 6-2 lead in the second game but off another one of those Eastern 6-0 spurts (including that amazing blocked shot by Root) and off a ball Rodjenski casually flipped over the net somehow found the court for a point, the Lancers were back in control at 8-6.
Off a 9-9 stalemate, Eastern took the lead again for good in the period.
Root made a slick dump-over for a score. Hubina added a long kill. An error by the Vikings propelled the Lancers to a 12-9 push.
That lead eventually grew to 20-14 but East Lyme closed the gap to three off two consecutive aces by Emily Ennis.
But a quick 4-1 gallop by Eastern made it a 24-18 cushion again and off one final kill by Cucka, the Lancers won the frame by a 25-21 final and had a 2-0 lead in the match.
The pressure was clearly on the Vikings to make something happen and early during the final stanza, East Lyme made its final stand of the season.
Eastern flashed the Vikings for a 8-4 tilt to start game three but quickly East Lyme tied the event at 8-8.
The Lancers couldn’t shake East Lyme midway through things and off a hit from Fobian that was not returned by Eastern, the Vikings were staked to a 14-13 push.
After a timeout by the Lancers, Eastern made its run to attempt to knock the troublesome Vikings out of contention.
The Lancers used a 6-1 burst to recapture the lead as a slam from Orsi smashed Fobian in the head while Smith captured an ace, it put Eastern ahead 19-15.
Lyme’s Hannah Burke flushed in two aces and the deficit was once again a one-point game at 19-18.
After one more Eastern later, it was all but over.
Eastern rallied off four straight points and off a bad serve from the Vikings, the Lancers led 24-19 and the Lancers’ fans were all standing, anxious for the final point to be scored.
The Vikings notched another point off a furious volley but once Ennis sailed a long kill attempt out of bounds, it was over at 25-20.
And at the final horn, Eastern celebrated its championship – something that Lancers knew could be accomplished this year – and also cemented what a very special class of seniors helped to bring about.
In the end, the leadership of Smith, Hubina, and Cucka was rewarded with the biggest prize of them all and a fifth championship for the Eastern program.
“We talked about this from the beginning, it was a goal we talked about a lot but not enough to distract us from what we needed to do each game,” said Rivoira about the possibility of a state championship. “I’m so proud of my three seniors. They’ve been with me as starters for three years. I’m just happy they’re able to enjoy this.”
NOTES…Next week, the Bristol Observer will take a closer look at Bristol Eastern’s championship campaign.
By MICHAEL LETENDRE