St. Joseph volleyball tops New Canaan in FCIAC quarterfinals

It’s been a while since the St. Joseph Cadets volleyball team has tasted defeat in what has been a ground-breaking season. While all the winning is great, the key match for the Cadets may have been in an early loss.

“The best thing is, we have a loss,” head coach Jeff Babineau said. “So they don’t think about that (being undefeated). We preach one point, one game at a time.”

That approach worked well on Monday, as the Cadets overcame a strong challenge from the New Canaan Rams in the first set and then rolled to a 3-0 win in the FCIAC quarterfinals at St. Joseph High School.

The top-seeded Cadets, who are now 19-1, topped No. 8 New Canaan, now 12-9, by scores of 25-20, 25-13, 25-12.

St. Joseph will now face No. 5 Danbury in the conference semifinals at Fairfield-Ludlowe at 5 p.m., Thursday. The semifinals were originally scheduled for Wednesday, but were pushed back a day when the Ridgefield-Staples quarterfinal was postponed due to those schools being closed on Monday.

For New Canaan hadn’t played any postseason games since 2014, but turned things around with a dozen wins, so far, under new head coach Kevin Marino this season.

“This is a tough gym to play in with the (low) ceiling, but I thought we played really well in the first game and then sputtered off after that,” Marino said. “There were too many of our own mistakes today.

They’re just all-around super solid. They have a very strong lineup; all nine girls they put in are extremely talented, so there’s really no holes.”

New Canaan and St. Joseph had squared off just one week ago, and the Cadets won that match, 3-0. The quick turnaround to the second match didn’t have an adverse affect on St. Joe’s.

“It definitely helped us because playing a team so recently, you see what they’re doing now and there may not be too many changes,” senior Bridget Fatse said. “If you see them early in the season, they may have made some changes to the rotation, so that definitely gave us a little bit of an advantage.”

Fatse led the Cadets’ attack with 11 kills, while Christina Crocco added 10, and Elena Ball had seven. Setter Grace Vocalina dished out 26 assists. Crocco also had an ace and an assist, while Ball had a block and an assist.

For New Canaan, senior Carson Allsteadt had six kills, 13 digs and one block; junior setter Emma Wheeler had 11 assists and two aces; and senior Carey Callahan had 14 digs. Senior Jessica Parrino had two kills, eight digs and one ace; and junior Julia Salvatore collected five aces.

While the Cadets rolled into the tournament, the Rams had qualified for the playoffs in dramatic fashion last Friday, rallying from a 2-1 deficit to beat Westhill in five sets in their final game.

New Canaan appeared to have some of that momentum still in hand, as the Rams and Cadets were close throughout. Leading 19-17, St. Joe’s closed out the set with a 6-3 run.

“Obviously, we carried some momentum from Friday and they’re excited to be playing in the FCIAC tournament,” Marino said. “But even in that first game, we missed six serves, and we had three or four net calls. When you make that many mistakes, it’s hard to rebound from it, and we just couldn’t do it. They’re too good of a team to have all those mental errors against.”

“We knew they were going to change a couple things up and they did; they changed their back row defense on us,” Babineau said. “That was in the first game, so we switched our offense around and started hitting at cross angles instead of down line. It was good. They’re a smart team and I knew they were going to battle us.”

The Cadets regrouped between sets and jumped out to leads of 6-1 and 17-7 in the second frame.

“We have to take our time and take a breath between sets and during timeouts and realize that we’re making too many mental errors,” Fatse said. “We need to focus and clean it up a little bit. It might have been a little bit of first-game jitters on the court, but we were able to get rid of them quick.”

New Canaan was able to close the 10-point gap to four with a six-point run, but the Cadets won the next eight to finish it at 25-13, and then won the third set, 25-12, to finish the match. It was St. Joe’s 13th shutout of the season.

As has been typical of the Cadets this season, a number of players had a hand in the victory.

“We have really good depth on this team; we’re able to spread the wealth, and it’s hard for people to focus on one of us,” Fatse said.

While St. Joseph gets ready for the FCIAC semifinals, the Rams will turn their attention to the CIAC Class LL tournament, which begins next week. They’ll learn who their first-round opponent is on Friday.

“This is a learning experience for states, for the younger girls, and for the future,” Marino said of Monday’s match. “Just to get here is an accomplishment for them and I’m happy for them. Now, we’ll work for states and see what happens.”