SHELTON - Itâs just after 8 p.m. on Thursday night at Shelton High School, and the opening serve of the Class M boys volleyball state championship game will sail over the net in mere minutes, once rosters are introduced and the National Anthem is played.
In one corner of the gym, the Cheshire boys volleyball team wears a stone look of focus, going through synchronized warmup routines, lined up in parallel rows while teammates bump and set balls back and forth. The No. 2 Rams have an upset in mind, hoping to take down top-seeded Newington, and their business-like approach in the minutes before the championship match suggest they are prepared and confident in dethroning the defending champs.
In the opposite corner, the Indians share a similar focus. After all, their goal since the season began was to make it to this point, and secure the programâs first-ever three-peat. Newington is locked in, ready to defend its title and further solidify its case for a dynasty. The Indians are prepared, they are confident, they areâŠ
Even with the match moments away from starting, Newington grabbed from the basket of volleyballs and began having its own pregame dunk contest, throwing alley-oops to each other and serving up their own lobs by bouncing it off the backboard before throwing a dunk home. Teammates teased each other when they couldnât reach the rim. Shouts of âYou canât guard me!â could be heard through the crowd of players waiting their turn to try and get a handful of rim.
If there was any pressure to avoid an upset and keep the state title in Newington, the Indians werenât feeling any of it.
âAfter a good 23 games this season, we came to the conclusion that Newington volleyball wins more games when weâre having fun,â senior Teddy Fravel said. âThatâs what we do.â
Keeping a loose atmosphere is what Newington has done since its first match of the season, and it wasnât about to change that winning formula just because the stakes were raised. In fact, turning up the stakes meant turning up the fun for the Indians, starting with the ride to Shelton on Thursday night.
âIt was almost like a party bus on the way down,â head coach Curt Burns said, âYou would have never known we were going to a state title game. There was lot of music. Theyâre loose. Itâs a fun group.â
The fun-filled preparation translates into the match, when itâs hard to find a player on the floor not wearing a smile. Sure, they can slip into lapses of self-inflicted pressure, like they did in the first set against Cheshire, but for a team that lives on loose, it doesnât take much to recognize when the mood needs to be lightened.
âThatâs what itâs all about for us, having fun,â setter Leonel Caceres said. âWe told ourselves [after the first set] âcome on, weâre playing volleyball. Letâs just have fun. Weâre going to wake up tomorrow, win or lose. Just go out there and have fun.ââ
The difference was easily distinguishable after that first set, as the free-flying Indians got back to their seemingly carefree demeanor and rattled off three straight set wins to claim the state championship. All it took was less thinking, and more genuine enjoyment.
Whether itâs jumping and clicking the heels of their feet in the air in unison or challenging each other to a dunk contest during warmups, Newington is given free reign by Burns when match time approaches. It may appear to be a relaxed form of coaching, but really, itâs a confidence that the real work for the match has already been done.
âI definitely preach focus, but I also know that we go over everything in practice,â Burns said. âI donât get up and instruct things during the match. They know what they have to do. I might call a timeout just to give them a break, but thatâs it. They do the work in practice and when they get into the match, theyâre free but theyâre focused.â
That focused sense of freedom carried Newington all the way to its third Class M title, and what made it more special for those involved was the knowledge that they had a blast all the way through the last victorious volley.
âWe play better when we have fun,â senior Louis Egbuna said. âWhat makes Newington is that we love having fun. Weâre a bunch of high school kids playing volleyball. We do this and we have fun doing it. It can be the first match [of the season], the conference championship or the state championship. Weâre going to have fun regardless. Thatâs what makes us so unique.â
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or firstname.lastname@example.org