BRISTOL - The Bristol Eastern girls volleyball team played the first nine matches of its season nearly without a single hiccup. The Lancers boasted a perfect 9-0 record and only played the fourth set of a match twice.
That was until Thursday night when Eastern faced crosstown rival Bristol Central for the second time this season and the Lancers found themselves trailing 2-1 after the first three sets. A team with proven experience, Eastern responded to losing two sets for the first time all season by making the fourth set its best set of the match.
While the first three sets each saw one of the teams build a large lead only for it to dissipate, the Lancers built a 15-5 lead early in the set and never let the Rams come close to making another comeback by forcing a third set 25-18.
“We just knew that we needed to come together as a team because we weren’t playing as a team,” Plourde said. “We needed to be a unit, we knew we were kind of playing individually. So coming down from two sets, we knew that we needed to come together and play like we normally do because we weren’t playing our game.”
Eastern channeled that same togetherness to take an early lead in their first fifth set of the season and went on to win 15-10 and remain undefeated. After facing their first true challenge of the season, the Lancers uncovered what they can accomplish when pushed to the brink.
“I learned that when they really want it and when they don’t get in their own head, they can play like a team no matter what’s going on on the other side of the court,” head coach Stefanie Reay said. “I adjusted the lineup to focus on our strength, which is offense rather than concerning ourselves with our defense and I think that made a huge difference. Especially starting with our lineup that we started with, we were able to get quite a few points offensively before we lost any defensively. When they do that, they get all fired up and they just play much better that way.”
The intensity of being forced to compete for five sets was compounded by the pressures of the match being a closely contested rivalry game. The Lancers made an increased number of unforced errors and mental mistakes in the early sets, which Reay attributes to the team’s lack of focus.
Part of settling down for Eastern was re-centering themselves around talking to each other, rather than putting the pressure of falling behind entirely on themselves as individuals.
“Communicating was definitely a big thing,” senior Ryley Plourde said. “I feel like people get down when you lose a few points, people stop communicating as much. When we gain a few, everybody is fired up and we want more. People are talking to each other and we’re calling out where it’s going. Communication, when it comes down to it, is always key, we picked it up with our communication and that momentum just led us to do better and better.”
As the coach, Reay is very cognizant of how she behaves as a coach in these situations, knowing what he players need to see and hear from her so they can regain their composure.
“My approach is to keep as even keeled as I can because they’re already nervous,” Reay said. “Yelling at them, telling them they're making mistakes isn’t going to help them at all I don’t feel.”
The Lancers’ final two games of the regular season are against teams they are likely to have far less trouble with in New Britain and Lewis Mills. With an augmented postseason ahead of them, there is a better chance than normal they will have a third meeting with Central this year so getting this kind of experience now could prove to be beneficial in the coming weeks.
“It’s always when we play Central, I think there’s a certain nerve that comes along with it,” Plourde said. “It’s a big game, it’s a big rival, I feel like there’s a lot of pressure because we haven’t lost to them in a really long time.”
Matt Hornick can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or email@example.com