Girls volleyball: St. Joseph stays positive en route to title

Coaches are always on the lookout for athletes that possess both physical skills and mental toughness.

Players seek out coaches that both teach and challenge them.

St. Joseph High’s girls volleyball team found what it was looking for in each other, and the end result was a 3-1 Class M state championship victory over host and No. 7 seed East Haven on Saturday.

“Our motto is ‘Work hard in practice; have fun in games,’” Babineau said of his top-seeded team’s ability to stay positive through a grueling preseason and a challenging FCIAC schedule.

“You can’t fix technical problems once a match begins. You only have thirty seconds (during a timeout) to get your message across. That’s why we work on the mental side of the game each day in practice.”

Senior Christina Crocco registered the kill that gave the Cadets the title (26-24, 25-27, 25-21, 25-17).

“When I saw Christina’s ball hit the floor, it hit me — we are state champions,” said junior Elena Ball, who was named MVP with 16 kills.

“In the FCIAC, every game was a challenge and this was no different. They had really powerful hitters, we had stay up and not let it get to us.”

Crocco’s kill came on match point and gave the Cadets its first state title since the 1997 season.

“We had to hit around their blockers and had to adjust,” said Crocco, who finished with nine kills and five blocks. “We had to just keep executing. Grace (Vocalina) set me up perfectly and I just took it home for the win.”

The final set was in contrast to the first two games.

Set points were twice turned aside by St. Joseph in winning game one, 26-24.

The Cadets (25-2) lost game two 27-25, but not until the fourth set point.

“We had to clear our heads,” said senior Hannah Hutchison of facing the third set tied. “We wanted it so bad and had to stay positive. It was a head spinner. It was the seniors last game, except for Bridget (Fatse), who will play in college.”

In the third set, the score was tied at 15 after one service rotation.

Vocalina and junior libero Kaitlin Capobianco each served a pair of winners.

Capobianco’s pass set up Ball’s winning spike at 24-21.

“We really worked hard to get there and it all paid off,” said Capobianco. “Although it was close, we all had confidence the whole time that we could pull it off. It was an amazing feeling to prove to ourselves and the state that we had the ability to win after so many years of hard work.”

“When I set the ball for Christina, I said the myself: ‘This is it, this is the winning point,’” said Vocalina, who had 36 assists in the match. “We are such a close-knit unit and always remind each other to stay positive.”

Freshman middle hitter Jenna Koonitsky had nine kills and five blocks.

Fatse, who had eight kills and will play volleyball at Connecticut College, said this when asked about pre-match nerves: “No, I actually slept well last night. I have confidence in my team and when you are confident anything is possible. I’m proud of everyone on this team. Without the good passing to Grace it would have been hard for all the hitters to get it done.”

The fourth set was filled with sideouts — except when Hutchison was at the stripe as she had three winners, including an ace, to give the Cadets a 6-3 lead.

Ball and Hutchison each served up two more winners (13-9 and 18-12) and each point ran the Easties into a timeout.

After a side out, Capobianco’s dig over net was returned short.

Ball pushed a winner to an open spot to make it 23-17.

That gave serve to Vocalina, who notched the next two with Crocco’s kill the winning spike.

“This was all about them,” Babineau said while nodding to his players. “They did all the work all season to get to this point. They did it for themselves, their school and their families. They made the big plays and got the big points when they had to.”

St. Joseph had last played in the Class M state final in 2014, when it lost to Granby Memorial. The Cadets had won Class M titles in 1997 over E.O. Smith, in 1992 over Foran, in 1991 over New Fairfield, in 1989 over Platt of Meriden, and in 1984 over Branford.