By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – Trying to pick the 2014-15 Bristol Observer Girls Athlete of the Year was once again a challenge of epic proportions.
Well, sort of.
It’s certainly true that all three high schools in the Mum City had worthy candidates but going through the list over and over, one athlete seemed to jump off the page each time.
I was looking for that athlete that was not only a standout on the volleyball court – whoops, almost gave that away – but someone who made her teammates better, a model student and someone who’s out in the community, doing something outside of Bristol Eastern (wow, just give it away already…).
Okay, the secret’s out.
This year’s Bristol Observer Athlete of the Year is volleyball standout Brianna Root.
And frankly, this choice was a no-brainer from start to finish.
When this award is given out, I look at the athlete’s entire career from start to finish and frankly, in terms of success on the volley court for Bristol Eastern, no one was a bigger part of that than the likable Root.
And the legacy she leaves behind, from her early days starting as a freshman for the program to the warrior gutting it out with an injury against Farmington in her final match of her scholastic career to the state championship of 2012 would take a book to record.
She’s done it all folks and she did it with style, substance and grace.
However, if you weren’t in an Eastern uniform, she’d try to spike the ball down your throat.
“It was the best time of my life, some of the best memories I’ll ever have” said Root of playing volleyball at Eastern.
If someone asked how to describe Root on the court, here’s is a perfect example.
Ever let a squirrel into your house (by accident of course)?
And you’re trying to get it out: you’re chasing it all over the place, you’re thrashing it with a broom, and very quickly, you’re out of energy and ready to collapse.
However, that squirrel is still thrashing about and now, it’s eating all your food, and laughing at you in the process…well, that’s Root.
She’s here, there and everywhere and once she’s on the court, she’s not going anywhere.
And when she’s not setting the ball, she’s digging it out, scoring a point and – even on occasion – she’s blocking a shot.
For her to block shots, she has to have some sort of “mad hop’s” to leap and make those rejections.
Frankly, she’d do everything on the court if you let her.
Just from a statistical point of view, from the setter position, does anyone have more career assists than Root in program history?
True, matches back in the day went to only 15 points – now it’s 25 – but the assist numbers she put up over her four varsity seasons stack up with just about anyone’s in the state.
And then there were the awards: All CCC South, All-State, All-Universe…you get the picture.
In her final season, she helped the defending CCC Tournament champs to a 20-4 campaign and Root and company were mere points away from getting back to the Class L championship.
And the numbers spoke volumes of her outstanding play: 587 assists, 50 kills. 63 service aces, and a hefty 185 digs to go along with five blocked shots.
And some of her assists totals were simply amazing.
Root collected 44 in the five set win over Joel Barlow in a Class L quarterfinal match on Nov. 11, while in a 3-2 victory over Southington on Sept. 19, she dished 37.
She dumped in 36 as Farmington had trouble but finally defeated Eastern 3-1 in a CCC Tournament game on Oct. 30 while she unplugged 38 assists against Platt on Oct. 20.
As a junior, her numbers were off the charts as well.
She ramped up 703 assists – a top five mark in the state – and added 148 digs as a junior.
As a sophomore, Root dished out 707 assists and led the team in that same category as a freshman even through an injury.
In the last three seasons at Eastern, the Lancers were at least a Class L semifinalist.
But Root isn’t really interested awards, statistics and the like although her trophy case is probably the size of a small house.
Root was a role model on the court and that started nearly when she walked onto the court for the Lancers in 2011.
By the time her senior year came around, Root’s teammates watched what she did on the court and realized she was the ultimate teammate.
If someone were to pattern their game around what the crafty Root did on the floor, even partially, that player would already be way ahead in the game.
“I think that playing volleyball with my teammates was the biggest thing for me and having them look up to me,” said Root. “Even some of the younger girls came up to me this year and said how much they’re going to miss me and how much I inspired them to do better and be better which I think was the main goal for me throughout my high school career.”
“Winning the state championship was nice but I think the best thing was having an impact on some of the younger players.”
But that state championship was oh so impressive.
No one was truly talking about the Lancers in 2012, on a state level that is.
The locals knew what Eastern was all about but you kept hearing about RHAM and East Lyme and Joel Barlow.
And every team lost to Coventry that season – even Eastern – so the Lancers might have been flying under the radar a bit, if you could believe that.
Not so when Root and company got to the Class L finals – disposing East Lyme in three quick sets (25-12, 25-21, 25-20) to ramp up the Class L championship.
“That was amazing,” said Root of the championship.
In the championship tilt, Root turned in 24 assists and the squad finished the season with a sterling 23-1 ledger.
But Root truly showed her stuff against RHAM in the semifinals, in a challenge far away from home at Fitch High School in Groton.
The match turned into a slugfest as RHAM won the second set and forced a 1-1 tie – from there, it was a do-or-die situation Root seemed to crave and respond in so many times over the years for the Lancers.
That match, Root was called upon to lead her squad out of that jam and she so with all the same guile we’ve seen over the years.
And in the end, Eastern was heading for the finals with a 3-1 victory over RHAM in hand.
“That was actually one of our poorer games,” said Root of the RHAM challenge. “But I think us rallying together was really about how we won the game.”
“And having that [championship] plaque obviously helps.”
And when the showdown with East Lyme came about, the traffic cop on the court – Root – made all the right calls, funneled her mates into the proper spots, and three sets later, Eastern had another banner to hoist.
Again, the ending was about the team.
“There’s no better feeling than winning a state championship with my team,” said Root.
Of course, Root made volleyball her sport of choice but that wasn’t the only one that made her the well-rounded athlete she is today.
She played hoop (remember as a freshman for Eastern, she made that state tournament start at point guard), softball, tennis, swimming, soccer, gymnastics and dance just to name a few.
But once her love for volleyball grew, her path was clear.
“Growing up, I played a lot of different sports,” said Root. “But when I found one I actually liked to do and wanted to continue doing, especially with volleyball, you can play beach, you can play grass, you can indoor. They are a lot of different varieties to it but I encourage everyone to play a lot of different sports.”
“I think it made me as successful as I am today in volleyball to play as many different sports as I did.”
Root was a member of numerous success travel teams over the years in volleyball such as the Connecticut Juniors Travel team and those experiences only enhanced her all around game.
Success would be an understatement when talking about Root.
Remember, Eastern went a perfect 56-0 in CCC South matches in volleyball over her four seasons as a literal human water bug on the court.
56-0…will that standard ever be matched again?
So, her scholastic career in the sport is over but this fall, Root starts up all over again as a member of the volleyball squad at Post University in Waterbury as a member of the class of 2019.
Post is a NCAA Division II school and has a volleyball program that’s not only growing, but thriving.
The Eagles won the conference title (Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference) in 2014 and made their first ever NCAA appearance.
The squad won 22 matches (22-11 overall) and had its best winning percentage since 2004.
Things might change a little bit for the setter and it’s very possible she moves into the liberio role for the Eagles – a position Root is also very familiar with.
True, Post is losing their setter due to graduation so it should be interesting where the mighty-mite from Bristol ends up on the court.
She’ll be making an impact wherever she’s stationed to be sure.
“Well, my goal is to win a national championship (at Post),” said Root with a grin. “I would love to do something like that. But I was actually really excited because Post won their first conference championship and it was the first time they ever appeared in the NCAA [tournament].”
“So I’m hoping to build a program and make an impact like I did at Eastern.”
For some, that claim would be a bold one indeed.
However, knowing Root, anything is possible and don’t be surprised if Post University is NCAA champion in volleyball sometime in the near future with her at the helm.
By MICHAEL LETENDRE