In last spring's CIAC Class L boys volleyball championship match, undefeated and No. 1 seed
went down 12-25 in the first game to perennial power Staples-Westport.
The Rams weren't playing anything like the way they dominated most opponents for the entire season. They almost looked lost. Things that worked all year just didn't seem to be there.
"Oh, that first game was horrendous," Cheshire head coach Sue Bavone said. "What we needed at that point was some sort of calming effect to say 'All right guys, I'm putting this on our shoulders right now. And the other guys fed off that confidence and that was Joe (Bahgat)."
Bahgat, along with fellow captain K.C. Philcox and junior Ryan Cuppernull, helped pull the Rams together with inspired and determined play. They wouldn't be denied and in the end they were not. Cheshire went on to win the next three games 25-23, 26-24, 25-22 for its first boys title in the eight years of the varsity program. And the Rams were 22-0 to boot.
It was Bavone's fourth state title. The first three came with her Cheshire girls volleyball program, which she took over in 1994. So, she has an interesting perspective on the sport, having been successful - and possibly undefeated - with both genders.
Only one other coach, Laurie LaRusso of Darien, has won titles with her boys and girls teams. LaRusso won her first boys title in the spring of 2008 and followed it with a girls title that fall.
Bavone has an opportunity to match that feat with her Cheshire girls team
, which is 23-0 after it edged Bristol Eastern in the Class LL semifinals 24-26, 26-24, 25-20, 14-25, 15-9. More importantly, she can also do something no volleyball coach has ever done in the
state: Take her teams to back-to-back undefeated seasons in
the same calendar year.
The semis are Thursday and the final is Saturday. (Bracket
"Just even to think about that is crazy," Bavone said. "If we could run the table with the girls, that would be something really, really special. That's just hard to do in any sport. That would be something I would talk about for years and years after I retire. 'Remember that 2011 season,'" Bavone adds with a laugh.
The boys team coming together and supporting each other in the spring final is something Bavone has worked hard to instill in her captains and is a key element of what she has brought to the boys program from her experience with girls. That doesn't mean she reached that goal the same way though.
"It's more the psychological stuff that's different with the boys and girls," Bavone said. "With the girls when we're in trouble, when a team has got us on the ropes a little bit, or what I call going into the yellow/red light zone, girls tend to pull together in that situation. Safety in numbers. They come together. They need each other to kind of get over that hump.
"Guys go polar opposite. The guys are struggling and they're in trouble, a lot of times one guy that just made a mistake doesn't want to bring it in. He's like: 'Leave me alone, leave me alone.' They're a little more competitive on an individual basis, so that's something I'm really working on.
"I believe one of the reasons we won the state title in the spring was that our boys team was really good at bringing it in and supporting each other. The first five years were just horrendous when it came to stuff like that. They would just splinter off, 'Leave me alone.' Now, we've fostered this kind of environment where we bring it in, pull it together. That starts with the captains. I work a lot with the captains."
That work extends to a five-week program with her captains for both programs. After each captain candidate basically campaigns for the spot by standing up and telling the team why they should be selected, the ones picked go through a course on how to become one. They learn how to react in pressure situations through scenarios.
Others see additional traits that are common to coaches who are successful with both genders.
"The coaches that over and over again their teams are very strong hold them to an extremely high standard of effort," Glastonbury boys coach Pat Ryan said. "So although it is very different coaching (boys and girls), the coaches try to give them that competitive instinct. Boys come into high school more competitive and focused on winning. Girls, that has to be trained into them."
It wasn't easy or always a seamless transition for Bavone when she started coaching the boys in 2003. Having already won two state titles in 1997 and '98 with the girls, coaching guys took some time to get them to buy in.
"It's getting better," Bavone said. "It's getting more similar. I had an established program with the girls. I had certain expectations, certain traditions. I had certain things I instilled in that program, which basically just carried over from year to year, the discipline things.
"When we first started with the boys, that was a little more difficult to be on board with that. Simple things like when the girls walk into a gym (for a game) they have to have their warm-ups. If they don't, they don't walk in with us. They walk in, in twos in silence. Discipline things that are important, the little details. With the boys it was a disaster. They'd walk in with their iPods, they'd be loosey-goosey. We actually even had a practice where we practiced walking in twos around our gym."
There are also a lot of technical differences between boys and girls and differing moods and attitudes to deal with.
"The game is very different. With the boys it's much more played at the net," Bavone said. "With the girls, it's much more of a defensive game. A passing game, keeping the ball in play. That was one of the big struggles I had when I started coaching the boys. All they want to do is hit the ball, even the little guys. I had to try to instill that idea of defense."
She went to a play day (scrimmage) in the boys preseason in the spring and Ryan asked Bavone how her team was looking. She said she wasn't happy with the defense. He told Bavone, "Don't you realize Sue, boys don't play defense."
"I was like, 'My boys will play defense,'" said Bavone, who believes boys indeed can adapt to playing a more defensive game and it paid off last spring.
"Boys teams are quite good at defense and that's what helps when you go into championships, keeping the ball in play," Bavone said. "Every team has athletic boys that can hit the ball hard, but not every team that we face is as disciplined in defense as we are, so we end up having more rallies. I've brought that part of the girls game over to the guys a little more than some coaches have."
Bavone said during a match the teams react quite differently to her getting on them in the huddles.
"Dealing with personalities with boys is so much different," she said. "I can get on the guys a little more. It's kind of funny how they react. Because if I really get on a girls team, they'll just get mad. Put on a face, shut down, whatever. You get mad at the guys and they almost get sad. Maybe it's because I'm a female but they feel like they disappointed me or something, it's kind of funny. I expect them to get fired up and it's kind of like 'I disappointed you. I'm sorry' kind of thing.
"(The boys) just talking with my girls players, they know I'm a disciplinarian, I'm very structured. I think the guys respect me as a coach because I think I've earned that respect through the girls program."
Ryan sees pretty much the same thing.
"Almost invariably, the boys tell me I need to yell at them more," Ryan said. "They get more used to it. When you're calling them out, trying to get them fired up, the boys will slightly take it personally but assume you're talking about somebody else. On the girls side, every girl will think it's directed especially at them. They tend to take it more personally."
This season's Cheshire girls team has eight seniors, seven of whom start. So it's an experienced bunch. Kelly Gunneson
is Bavone's big hitter. Gina Buzelli
, whom Bavone calls the best setter she's had in years, and Kerry Chavoya
are her captains, integral to what Bavone teaches: instilling confidence and staying together.
"Girls lose their confidence a lot quicker. They get their confidence from the whole team," Bavone said. "But if the whole team starts to get a little shaky, it's like a domino effect. Then you've got to talk to them. 'They're going to make their run, it's OK.' They forget that they are a good team.
"All the championships I've won, you need that vocal leader. That person that's going to say 'OK, guys we got this, no problem.' And the kids buy into it."Paul Rosano, the former assistant sport editor of The Hartford
Courant and sports editor of The New Haven Register, is a MaxPreps contributor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.