Four years ago, Shirley Karkow interviewed for the
girls' volleyball job. The program, once one of the best in the Eastern Connecticut Conference, had been through several losing seasons.
"When they interviewed me, they said, ‘How long will it take to become a successful program?,' " Karkow recalled. "Obviously, I didn't know the players at all. I just said, ‘Generally, it takes three or four years.' And I really do believe that.
"If you set up a plan, you can do it. Of course you have to have some luck and some athletic players. There's a lot of things that go into it. I just felt like if we did the right things and people were on board, yeah, we could be successful."
Karkow was right. Four years after she was hired, the Colonels made program history, winning their first CIAC state title on Saturday in their first appearance.
Senior Kylie Fustini
, who'd been with the program for all four years, had a match-high 13 kills with two blocks as Ledyard swept top-seeded Woodland (Beacon Falls, Conn.), 25-17, 25-23, 25-20, in the Class M championship match at East Haven High.
"This is a absolutely amazing game," senior Jessica Monday
said. "We worked really hard at practice at different areas, and we wanted this game."
The Colonels join East Lyme and Norwich Free Academy as the ECC's only state volleyball champions.
"We wanted to make a run at states, and I really believed we could win states," Karkow said of this year's team goals. "I really believed we were contenders."
Karkow had previous experience at building a program, having been the first coach at nearby Montville. In her fourth season there, the Indians had a shocking run to the 2003 ECC championship and qualified for the state tournament for the first time. She left the program after the 2005 season as her family was going to move out of state, but the plans were scuttled.
Ledyard didn't have a freshmen program when Karkow took over in 2009, so she took it upon herself to start one, and coached both it and varsity. The team won seven games that year.
The following year, the Colonels finished 2-16.
"That was going to happen because we were bringing in a whole new class," she said. "You have to look at what you define success as being when you're not winning, and I did this at Montville when we started from scratch. It's like you do as a runner. You try to have a better PR. (In volleyball), you try to improve your service percentage.
"Statistics, for me, they were functional. We'd say, ‘Okay, last time you did this. This time, we're going to do that.'"
It would've been easy for Fustini to give up volleyball after two losing seasons, but she stuck it out.
"I've never been a quitter," she said. "I chose to play volleyball. I love this sport.
"Coach told me, even though the second year was pretty hard, to look toward next year. What I could do (to improve). Even though things might be going bad to maintain a positive attitude. There wasn't a doubt in my mind that I was going to stay with volleyball no matter how much harder it got."
Things went much better for Ledyard last season. It won 11 games during the regular season and clinched a share of the ECC Medium Division title with Plainfield. It also qualified for states for the first time since 2002.
"People had another year under their belt, like Alyssa (Gregory)
, Ari (Fustini)
and Brianna (Riley
)," Karkow said. "My junior class started to step up. And then the freshman class, Michelle (Klinikowski
), Jenny (Nohara
), Liz (Austin
), Madison (Canestrari
), it's a huge, strong class."
Ledyard went 14-4 this season and again shared the ECC Medium Division title with Plainfield. It had the luxury of two tall, strong middle hitters in Kylie Fustini (5-foot-11) and Klinikowski (6-2). Arianna Fustini, Canestrari and Gregory hit from the outside. Nohara and Riley split the setting duties.
The Colonels played one of their better matches on Saturday in the final. Kylie Fustini and Klinikowski (10 kills) overwhelmed Woodland in the middle, while Arianna Fustini added 10 kills from the outside. Riley added 18 assists and two aces.
Now Ledyard volleyball has a championship banner to put along side all the football and wrestling banners in its gymnasium.
"I'm so excited," Kylie Fustini said. "I can't wait to go back to the gym in the future and say, ‘That was us.' I can't even describe that feeling."Ned
Griffen has covered high school, college and professional sports in the
Northeast since 1992. A 2003 New England Associated
Press News Executives award winner, he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.