“It’s hard to beat a good team three times” is a sports cliche that was made very real for the Bears in 2017 and 2018 when they lost the championship game to a team they had swept twice in the regular season. Yesterday, they found themselves in an eerily similar situation, facing Long Island Lutheran in the final after sweeping them in both regular season match-ups. But the Bears did not let the pressure of the recent past shift their focus as they won the first back-to-back tournament titles in program history.
When a team is as dominant as our volleyball team has been, it can be easy to take for granted the accomplishments that pour in. Since their thrilling, unexpected run to the 2016 County Championship, there simply are not enough superlatives to describe just how good they have been:
- 4 consecutive regular season titles
- 4 consecutive undefeated seasons
- 32 consecutive league victories
- 28 consecutive home victories
- 11 consecutive sweeps
The girls make winning look easy, but don’t let that belie the hard work that goes on every day behind the scenes. This season, after not being able to play a single game in the fall, the Bears had a chance to compete in a spring volleyball league. However, due to a gym conflict each afternoon with the badminton team, the girls had to utilize evening practices each night. Those who were already committed to other spring sports could only attend practice on three of those nights. But these girls endured the challenges with a persevering joy to once again reach the pinnacle of the league.
In the moments before a championship game, nervous energy can be a challenge to control, but the confident Bears showed little of that despite shouldering all of the pressure and expectations. After LuHi took the match’s first point, the Bears ran off four in a row, punctuated by a sliding, one-arm dig from Niamh Scanlon that led to a point. LuHi pulled back to 3-4 with an ace, but Ava McCormick scored a touch kill and consecutive aces and Lilly Keegan fired a kill to push the lead to 8-3. An Ella Middlekauff kill that clipped the net and a Keegan kill that ricocheted off a LuHi defender and the ceiling gave the Brook a 10-5 edge, but Lutheran closed their deficit to 10-11, prompting a timeout by coach Allie Kennedy. Out of the stoppage, Ava McCormick spiked the ball into the deck and Gillian Bernier followed with an ace to nudge the advantage to 14-11. After LuHi grabbed the next score, the Bears snatched the pivotal point of the match when Scanlon used her face/shoulder to absorb a LuHi cannon before McCormick blocked another LuHi attempt to cap the furious rally and take a 15-12 lead. From there, the Bears closed the game on a 10-3 run to win the first set. A Bernier dig and Ella Middlekauff kill preceded a Lily Middlekauff ace as the lead swelled to 19-13. Shannuel Lamptey added a kill for a 21-14 advantage, Scanlon clipped the net on a free ball for a 23-15 lead, and Ella Middlekauff closed the set with a pair of aces.
In set two, the Bears again built a quick lead after McCormick sent a kill off of a LuHi blocker for the first point and added a block for the second. A service error from LuHi followed, one of their five in the game, as the Bears took an early 4-1 lead. The Bears held a 5-3 lead when Keegan registered a pair of kills and an ace to push the advantage to 11-5 and force a LuHi timeout. Both teams traded points and the Brook still held a 14-6 advantage when LuHi reeled off a 9-2 run to take a 17-16 lead and put themselves in position to steal the ever-important set. The second set is always a pivotal one in a volleyball match as winning it after dropping the first set is the difference between being dead even and having to win three straight sets. But the late lead change did nothing to rattle the experienced Bears who would respond with their own 9-2 run to move within a set of the championship. A pair of LuHi errors gave the Brook the lead back at 18-17 and they never looked back, thanks to a pair of Lily Middlekauff aces that pushed the lead to 24-18 before the Bears took the set, 25-19.
The Bears appeared to take the heart out of LuHi after overcoming the late deficit in set two as they built an early 5-1 lead behind a Scanlon ace, a McCormick block, and a Lamptey kill. LuHi closed back to 7-9, but a pair of Keegan aces and a combined block from Scanlon and Ella Middlekauff gave the Brook a 12-7 cushion. With the score at 13-9, Ella Middlekauff took over serve and by the time she gave it back the match was essentially over as the freshman’s spinning offerings ignited a 9-0 game-breaking run. It began with a pair of spikes from McCormick and Lamptey before LuHi failed to return Middlekauff’s next five serves. Two different LuHi timeouts could not stem the run, which was capped by a big Lamptey spike. From there the match held little drama before LuHi failed to return a Bernier serve on championship point for the 25-12 win. It marked the Bears’ 15th straight set win over LuHi, who has been their main PSAA rival over the last three years.
After the match Keegan, McCormick, Scanlon, and Lily Middlekauff were named All-PSAA while Keegan’s outstanding performance in the semifinal and championship earned her the Tournament MVP award.
As the Bears survey their amazing four-year run, they can also look ahead at a bright future as they return nearly the entire squad next year save for Lamptey and serving specialist Joan Bamgboye. In the next few years this team will have a chance to write their names alongside some of the greatest dynasties in the history of Stony Brook Athletics, and we should all feel very privileged to be along for the ride.