Growth was a primary mantra for the Bristol Eastern girls volleyball team this season.
A talented collection of players with minimal experience playing together, the Lancers had the potential to become an elite team at the start of the season. However they needed the time and experience to improve together and evolve into a more well-rounded group.
Eastern spent most of its regular season winning, but struggled to do enough to win three sets when its toughest opponents stood on the other side of the net. 3-2 losses to Glastonbury, Southington and Conard and a sweep against eventual state champion RHAM were all learning experiences for the Lancers as they continuously improved over the year and started playing some of their best games when the contests became more important.
Eastern closed its regular season with a pair of 3-0 wins before winning seven postseason games in a row. The first four of which won the school its first CCC Championship since 2013, while the next three brought the Lancers to the semifinals of the Class L state tournament.
The road ended there for Eastern as they struggled against Simsbury, the same team it beat in the CCC Championship game, but the progress every player made over the course of the season made the Lancers a much better team than they started as.
“Every single one of them has grown in so many ways,” head coach Stefanie Reay said. “It’s fantastic, I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s amazing all of the little things they got so much better at over the season. Every single player.”
The first step towards reaching their potential for the Lancers was to build relationships on the court and figure out the optimal rotations and combinations of players. Learning how to play together and building strong communication allowed for each player to then start fine-tuning their own skills to enhance the chemistry they were building.
“I think we had a lot more trust, not only in each other, but in ourselves,” senior Abby Jones said. “The girls always showed up to work and we made adjustments. We were able to make adjustments when we got down in most games.”
Jones will be one of three seniors, along with Hannah Webber and Alex Shorette, graduating from the team this year and will be missed as they were all integral parts of every win Eastern had this season. While they’re contributions on the court can be replaced, and will have to be, their lasting impact will come from how they led the team and facilitated everyone’s improvement beyond just their own.
“There are so many ways they’re going to be remembered, by the younger girls, especially,” Reay said. “They were so supportive, they created an environment of positivity [with] constructive criticism. I only have one set of eyes and one mouth, so the more they can help the younger girls, the better. They took a bunch of them under their wings and they look at them as models of behavior.”
With a large portion of the roster returning next year, the Lancers will be further ahead from where they started this year because they were starting from scratch in many ways. Having several players hardened from two deep postseason runs can only benefit all of them as they look to recreate that success in a year.
They were two wins away from finishing their season on their own terms this year and while it initially stings to come up short, most teams will never accomplish what Eastern did this season.
“Even though it wasn’t the ending we wanted, we were able to come and accomplish so many things,” Jones said. “We won CCC’s, which is something we are so proud of for everyone. We had a young team, a lot of us had never played together. No one really expected us to get even as far as we did.”
Unfortunately for the Lancers, their season finished with a heartfelt talk after loss instead of celebrating a win. But only four teams get to win state championships every year and not being one of those teams does not mean the season was a failure. Everyone on the team knew how much better they became from where they started and Reay made sure of it.
“I told them we should be proud of how far we came,” Reay said. “I said specifically to the seniors [they] have no idea what kind of impact [they are] having on all of these younger girls and all the younger girls that are watching [them] in the stands in every match and how they lead the team. They’re never going to learn that until 30 years later. They did so much, they worked so hard on setting up the team environment and setting the example. These girls are going to come back just as strong next year because of our seniors.”
Matt Hornick can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org.