By Paul Augeri
This season, either nickname would suit Haddam-Killingworth’s volleyball players.
Like all Connecticut teams, H-K has rolled with the necessary safety protocols that are helping the sport continue on in the coronavirus era. Players wear masks during competition. The schedule is condensed to 10 matches instead of the usual 20. No fans, either.
That’s not all the Cougars have had to manage. They can’t play in their home gym, displaced by major renovations to Patsy Kamercia Field House that are not expected to be completed until sometime after the fall season.
Another challenge for sure – and H-K has handled it like pros. The Cougars are 7-0 after Tuesday’s 3-1 win over Old Lyme, the best record in the Shoreline Conference, and look more and more like the hands-on favorite to win the SLC championship in November.
“The kid have not complained once,” coach Robin Callender said. “They are just happy that they’re playing (this year). I have six seniors who will not have a home match and I’m just amazed at how well they have handled the situation. We were hoping the new floor would be finished in October, but now it’s looking more like December or January.”
The Cougars practice at H-K Middle School. They have lost just one set – to perennial league power Hale-Ray. Otherwise, it’s been sweep city against Morgan, North Branford, Coginchaug, Cromwell and East Hampton.
The schedule calls for one regular-season match against each Shoreline opponent. Thursday offers the Cougars’ toughest test yet – a match against defending Shoreline champion Valley Regional (6-0). At the Warriors’ place, of course.
“(Being strictly a road team) will make these girls even more resilient,” said Callender, who played for Rich Langer at H-K and coached the junior varsity before getting the varsity job five years ago. “You have to look at the positives. We are playing. In August (and) September, who knew if we would even have a season. The players are grateful that they have a season.
“But the girls, all of them, JV and varsity, have been resilient. They go with the flow, which makes it that much easier for us to be successful.”
Tessa Wills, Elizabeth Celano, Meghan Doxsee, Caitlyn Esposito, Ella McGlynn and Addison Duquette are the team’s seniors. All logged valuable court time as juniors as well as the experience of the team’s 2019 run to the Class M semifinal round.
“The good thing about H-K volleyball is all of my varsity, with the exception of three sophomores who sub in quite frequently, they’ve all played together the last few years,” Callender said. “We did lose three seniors from last year, but we have girls who have been playing together for three years now. I knew that that was going to help our team out this year. I said to the seniors, ‘I want you to play as much as possible, but as coach I have to get the younger players involved because I have to fill those (six spots) next year. They need the experience now.”
The seniors have provided a road map for the underclassmen in their performance and leadership. Callender praised them all, especially Doxsee and Esposito. Doxsee, whose older sister Elizabeth was the Cougars’ libero before graduating in 2018, is a captain and perhaps H-K’s most versatile player.
“She’s our setter. She would love to hit, but the last couple of years I had to have her be our setter. She has a great attitude and gets the girls up,” her coach said. “We’ve started to utilize another setter so Meghan is able to hit. But she knows what she has to do and makes no complaints.”
Esposito, the team’s top middle hitter, also is having a strong year with her serve. “She is displaying high performance her senior year. I’m grateful for her,” Callender said.
Fort that a couple of vball teams from Shoreline that are rebuilding, so I was able to get younger sopho in signifcatintly so at least getting th experience, when lose 6 to grad, hopefuly be able to come in and take over like the other girls did. One of my goals.
Callender has two juniors, Jessica Timothy and Audrey Snyder, starting as outside hitters. Duquette starts at libero and gets spelled by sophomore Lola Chagnon.
“Lola is a phenomenal back-row player,” Callender said. “I envision the next two years that she is libero full-time and highly successful.”
Meanwhile, sophomore Payton Yazmer has been starting as the Cougars’ second middle the last few matches and “has shown tremendous growth since the beginning of season,” Callender said. “She takes control and knows her job and is able to perform it well. She is very consistent for a sophomore who’s thrown in as a middle hitter.”
With no state tournament this year, the importance of having a Shoreline postseason tournament is not lost on Callender and her fellow coaches. Last season, after losing early in the league tournament, H-K won a couple of matches before being swept by Seymour in the Class M semifinals.
Valley won last year’s Shoreline championship, the perfect retirement gift for longtime coach Kathy Scott.
“Valley has always had a strong volleyball program. Each year they produce a strong team,” Callender said. “It does not surprise me that they’re also undefeated this year. They were like a well-oiled machine at the end of last season.”
“Our seniors have played all four years and they definitely want a Shoreline championship,” the coach added. “I want it for them too. They have given so much time and energy to the H-K program. It’s been our goal to finish our season 10-0 and be in the Shoreline finals.”