It would have been easy for the volleyball team to quit on Monday night.
After dropping the first two sets in the best-of-five County Championship, no one would have faulted them for packing it in and looking forward to next season. They shouldn’t have even been there. In the middle of the season they waded through a series of key injuries that made making the playoffs a goal in itself. With a 3-3 record the Bears needed to win two of their final four games despite playing without several key starters. It would not be an easy road.
Then they made the playoffs by winning three straight games.
The Bears earned the #3 seed in the county tournament and a semifinal date with Port Jefferson who had beaten them twice in the regular season by scores of 3-2 and 3-0. No one would have faulted them for falling to the Royals’ powerful attack for a third time.
Then they won 3-1 and earned a trip to the County Championship.
Awaiting them in the final were the Pierson Whalers, the League Champions who ran roughshod over the Bears by scores of 3-1 and 3-0 on their way to a 9-1 record. The confident East Enders appeared ready for their coronation and placed one hand on the crown by winning the first two sets of the match by scores of 26-24 and 25-19. As the final point of set two fell to the hardwood, it should have brought all hope with it. Our girls were only a year removed from a winless season. They had dealt with injuries all season long and had upset a great team just to be there. The narratives would have been easy to justify. Being here was already a profound accomplishment. There would be plenty to look forward to next year.
Then they turned the tide.
Lois Ezi, Hannah Detwiler, Rebekah Detwiler, and Danielle Graves started killing every ball in site. Sammy Petersen unleashed a series of cagey touch shots at the net. Bri Kilkenny and Leslie Kang kept plays alive and set up the attack. Liz Robbins was seemingly everywhere, absorbing innumerable tough serves and spikes and playing as close to a flawless volleyball as you can play. Mistakes that plagued the Bears in the first two games melted away while Pierson’s icy facade began to crack. The Blue and White took an early lead in set three and never relinquished it. Each point breathed new life into the girls and the over 100 fans filling the cavernous space at Suffolk Community College Brentwood with impassioned pleas. A Petersen ace closed out the decisive 25-17 win and sent the Blue Fan Group into a frenzy. Hope had found new life.
Set four followed a similar script as the Bears built an early cushion behind excellent serves from Ezi and Robbins and the net play of the Detwilers and Petersen. It seemed like every long rally went our way. Points that appeared lost were rescued by dives and quick reflexes. The Whalers staged a late rally, but fell short when their serve found the net, giving the Bears a 25-21 win and forcing a decisive fifth set.
The belief in the arena was palpable. The six Brookers formed what felt like an impenetrable patchwork on their side of the net and continued to find the gaps in the Whaler armor. When Pierson sent a shot past the baseline to give the Bears a 19-10 lead, thoughts of a title moved from the ethereal to the concrete. We were standing on the precipice. Then Pierson showed their championship mettle by unleashing a 12-1 run to surge ahead and grab a 22-20 lead. It was a rally that would have crumbled most teams, but the Bears possessed a belief forged by a season of adversity.
In that crucial moment they did not need to find a new source of fortitude; they needed only to draw from the reservoir they had been filling all season long. They poured into that pool on September 20 when they defeated Shelter Island to end a 13-match losing streak. And on October 18, when they overcame an injury to one of their starters to outlast Mercy in a five-set thriller on senior night. And on November 2 when they upset the Royals in the semifinals. So when Pierson moved within three points of the victory, it was merely the latest challenge for our girls to conquer. And conquer they did.
Hannah Detwiler began the comeback with a well-placed kill after an assist from Petersen. Detwiler then tied the game at 22-22 on the next play with another high-arcing drop shot that the Whalers failed to return. A Pierson error gave the Bears the lead and then a beautiful kill from Petersen moved them within a point of the elusive title. Pierson again battled back to knot the game at 24-24, but a Bekah Detwiler kill put the Brook back into a winning position. After Pierson fought off a second match point to tie the set, Petersen put the Bears back ahead, 26-25, with a gorgeous drop shot. Then, it was time to put Pierson away for good. After a Robbins serve, the ball traveled back and forth over the net four times before Ezi sent a two-handed push shot over that Pierson could not return, giving us one of the most meaningful victories in our history. As the girls celebrated in the middle of the floor, the Blue Fan Group poured out of the stands in a spontaneous display of euphoria.
In fighting back from an 0-2 deficit, the girls earned the first title of any kind in program history, throwing off the yoke of four empty trips to the finals. After taking a total of three games from Pierson and Port Jeff over four regular season matches, the Bears dispatched their league rivals on their way to winning the school’s 50th Suffolk County title.
But the girls’ resilience was not just forged on the court this season. It was instilled by a man who is the very epitome of the word resilience. Head coach Stan Winston helmed the volleyball team from 2004 to 2009 before cancer put coaching on hold. Six years later he has led the program to the first title in its 27-year history.
The Bears now move on to the Long Island Championship against Nassau’s East Rockaway this Saturday at 11:00am at SUNY Old Westbury.