RHAM High girls volleyball player Kelsey Breault said her team is known for its comebacks.
It’s also known for something else — winning championships. Those two qualities came together here Saturday as the undefeated Sachems wrapped up a 25-0 season by winning their third straight Class M title with a 3-0 win over Joel Barlow. Game scores were 25-11, 25-22, and 26-24.
RHAM trailed Barlow, 24-20 in the third game when it calmly spurted off the final six points to settle the issue in dramatic style. If ever there was a time to examine the championship DNA of the Sachems, the closing stages of the third game was the perfect time.
“It’s just a matter of getting the job done,” RHAM coach Tim Guernsey said. “We don’t try to think about it too much. We just play.”
The final five points were served by Breault, who was a perfect 23-for-23 during the match.
“When we fall behind, our goal is to never let the ball touch the ground,” Breault said. “When I was serving, I try not to think about it too much. Basically, I just tried to serve it as hard as I could.”
Also supplying some firepower was senior Tessa Smolinski, who was responsible for three of RHAM’s final five points including the game winner, when she blow-torched a rocket that landed in the right corner of the court. She was named the Most Valuable Player in the championship game by the Connecticut High School Coaches Association.
“Last year, I scored the last point, but it didn’t count because they said I was over the net,” Smolinski said. “This year when I saw the ball go in, I didn’t hear anyone cheering, and I said, ‘Uh, oh.’ But we got the call, and I was just so excited.”
Her shot was just the exclamation point of three incredible seasons compiled by RHAM’s senior class. Just consider these numbers: three straight titles, 53 consecutive wins, and RHAM lost only one game all season, going 75-1.
Even when RHAM trailed, 24-20, in the third game, there were no signs of panic. That’s because RHAM has faced the identical situation hundreds of times in practice.
“Coach has a simulated game and makes the score 24-20,” Smolinski said. “We have to score six points in a row to win. So we do it all the time in practice. Today, we did it in a match.”
Perhaps the biggest play down the stretch was made by Chelsea Fenton. Her dig with the score 24-23 led to a kill by Smolinski and kept the RHAM rally alive.
“I’m used to getting the ball hit hard at me every day in practice, so I don’t even think about it when the ball is hit hard at me,” Fenton said. “I knew we had it in us.”
The Sachems had it in them all day long. RHAM ran off 10 straight points in the first game, with all the serving done by Breault, to make an early statement.
The statement got louder for the No. 1 seed in Game 2 when kills by Kelsey Welling and Smolinski locked up the win.
Then came the amazing comeback in Game 3.
“We don’t do it on purpose, but when we make it exciting like that, it’s more memorable,” Guernsey said.
Here’s another reason why it was memorable — the senior class of Mallory Grasso (8 digs), Fenton (11 digs), Ellie Lindon (30 assists), Smolinski (12 digs, 13 kills), Breault (9 digs), Welling (4 blocks, 8 kills) and Alie Carlson (4 kills).
Throw in 11 blocks and four kills by junior Jocelyn Taylor, who covered the top of the net like barbed wire, and it’s easy to understand how RHAM pulled it off.
“Our seniors were part of last year’s championship, but it was Kelly Stratton’s banner,” said Guernsey, referring to last year’s senior leader. “This year, the seniors got their own banner. You can’t do anything unless you have a talented group. And this is a talented group.”
Steve Antal, coach of 11th-seeded Joel Barlow (18-5), agreed.
“They’re just such a disciplined group,” Antal said. “They cover the floor well and they all know their roles. And they have some powerful hitters from both sides. They know how to find the gaps.”
And win championships.
“The kids were phenomenal,” Guernsey said. “What you saw today is what we’re been doing all year.”
More accurately, for three years.
By Matt Buckler