Hernandez named CHSCA Player of the Year
Woodstock Academy junior Paula Hernandez was getting ready to leave the Connecticut High School Coaches Association All-State banquet on Tuesday at the Aqua Turf Club in Southington.
“I was definitely not paying attention,” Hernandez said with a laugh.
But her mother and Woodstock Academy coach Adam Bottone convinced her to stick around for the final awards.
It was a good thing that she did.
Hernandez took home the biggest award of all, the CHSCA girls volleyball Player of the Year award from the banquet.
“I wasn’t expecting it at all. I thought (the Player of the Year award) went to players on teams that won the championship and we didn’t (the Centaurs finished as runners up, losing 3-2 to Joel Barlow) so I was really surprised, excited and some people got emotional,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez admitted she succumbed to her emotions after her name was called.
“I feel like everyone knew but me,” Hernandez said.
While it may have been a surprise to her, it wasn’t to Bottone.
“I had an idea that she might get it. I didn’t know for sure, but I knew a lot of people had put her on their ballot. I reached out to quite a few coaches. She’s a pretty impressive player and she deserves it. It’s nice that it happened, it wasn’t a surprise to me and I’m glad she stayed so that she could receive the honor in person,” Bottone said.
Since joining the team in the seventh match of the season last year, Hernandez has helped the Centaurs to 44 wins and only two losses, both of those defeats coming in Class L state championship matches.
The Centaurs won the Eastern Connecticut Conference Division I regular season title and captured their second consecutive ECC tournament championship this past season.
She finished with 493 kills, 370 digs, 145 assists, and 261 service points including 76 aces.
“This was an award for the whole team, not only me,” Hernandez said. “It’s a great honor, but I still think that I have to work more. I’m really proud of it. It was a big surprise and it’s really good for college.”
Hernandez has been receiving interest from schools and Bottone has noted a host of college coaches in the stands at Centaur matches. That is only likely to increase during the offseason when Hernandez will play club volleyball.
Centaurs fall in state championship
The Centaurs won the first two games of the Class L volleyball state championship Saturday.
Unfortunately, it’s where the good news ended.
"(Joel Barlow) wanted it more,” Centaurs coach Adam Bottone said. “They came out with a purpose.”
The top-seeded Centaurs went from comfortable to uncomfortable in the course of one set and never regained the momentum, losing 3-2 to second-seeded Barlow from Redding.
It was the first loss in 25 matches this season for the Centaurs.
“You can’t put this into words,” senior Natalie Low said. “I’m really sad that this is my last high school volleyball game ever. But it’s not over. Hopefully, in the future, all the girls will stay close, we’re all close friends and we will never lose that bond that we had this season.”
The Centaurs had to battle to win the first two sets.
Paula Hernandez had seven of her 32 kills, which tied her personal best, and Sammie Orlowski added eight of her 32 assists as the Centaurs captured the first game, 25-21.
But holding serve was already a problem.
The Centaurs only had three runs of three consecutive service points and had problems finishing of the set despite a 23-18 lead.
It took a beautiful dig by Hernandez to give the Centaurs the 25-20 win in Game 2.
While the Centaurs were up, 2-0, Hernandez was worried.
“Since the beginning, we were a little sloppy,” the junior said. “We won, but it wasn’t our best game. We were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we won? We knew we needed to play better, but they had really good serves and they were more consistent than all the other teams we played against.”
The Falcons dominated early in the third game.
The Centaurs, a happy-go-lucky bunch all season long, suddenly turned surly.
“We lost our looseness in the third set. They were letting things bother them that haven’t all season, getting frustrated and it went downhill from there,” Bottone said.
“Nothing changed on how we prepared or on the bus ride down, warmups were the same. We just mentally broke down,” Bottone said.
Kayleigh Emanuelson and Kiara Robichaud each delivered three service points and Emily Grob put Joel Barlow up 17-7 with a run of seven consecutive.
Bottone did everything he could to change the momentum.
Bottone subbed in Emma Green (9 assists) for Orlowski who he felt was struggling because she was thinking too much about what she needed to do.
Plus, Green’s serve was a little flatter than Orlowski’s.
“Nothing worked,” Bottone said.
The Centaurs lost the third set, 25-13.
“It was a little rough after that,” Low (13 kills, 14 service points) said.
The Falcons were successful in doing something that the Centaurs had done all season, taking their opponents out of system.
The defense struggled and the Falcons took the fourth game, 25-19, to force the decisive fifth game.
The Centaurs went up, 9-5, on an Amelia Large block.
But again, it was the service line that decided the Centaurs fate.
A service error by the Centaurs turned the serve over to Riley Paradise.
The Falcons’ senior put down five straight service points, three on aces. Paradise had six of the 15 aces that Barlow recorded, the Centaurs had only five.
Paradise gave Joel Barlow the 11-9 lead and the two teams traded points.
The Falcons broke a 14-all tie on a Julia Mullin (16 kills) winner.
It was Arden Westphalen who put down the decisive point for the Falcons, tipping it over the net and the Centaurs could not return it.
“It’s immensely disappointing,” Bottone said. “I said in practice the other day, ‘If we lose this one, we didn’t come to play.’ That was the case. Barlow is a really good team. They do things really well. They serve well, don’t make a ton of mistakes and just took us out of our game.”
Bottone said it was hard, on Saturday, to think about just how good a season it was. An Eastern Connecticut Conference Division I regular season crown, an undefeated regular season, and an ECC tournament championship.
Repeating a season like that may be difficult.
The Centaurs lose Orlowski (689 assists), libero Maddy Gronski (449 digs coming into Saturday), Low (306 kills, 251 digs, 208 service points, 38 aces), Bekah Wesler, Green, Rachel Durand, Danuse Horka and McKenna Gagnon.
“I think it might be a struggle. We’re losing quite a bit,” Bottone said. “All season has been more than just Paula (493 kills, 370 digs, 76 aces) and (Saturday) was an indication of that. You can’t have just one person winning a match. We lose our setter, don’t have a replacement. We lose Maddy defensively, who do we replace her with and Natalie has been pretty good all season. There is a lot of work for us to do. This time last year, I thought we would be back (at a Class L championship). Next year, it might be a little stretch.”
Centaurs headed back to Class L state championship
Adam Bottone had a plan.
The Woodstock Academy coach wanted to serve to Bristol Eastern’s outside hitter Zoe Lowe and at libero Alexandria Dimattia.
“What I saw when I scouted them was that they struggled quite a bit receiving RHAM’s (High School) serve and I feel we are a better serving team than RHAM was,” Bottone said. “That was especially true when Lowe was in the front row because when she can’t transition and make a quality approach, she struggles getting a good hit. When she is able to transition, she can be dominant.”
The Centaurs kept Lowe at bay, took Bristol Eastern out of its system and dominated the Class L state tournament semifinal with a 3-0 win at Windsor High School on Wednesday.
The Centaurs (24-0) move on to the Class L state championship at 1 p.m. Saturday against second-seeded Joel Barlow.
Barlow prevailed over RHAM, 3-0, on Wednesday.
“From my understanding, they are very similar to us. They have one dominant outside hitter, they have another outside hitter who is pretty good, but tends to mix it up more. That’s where they go most of the time,” Bottone said.
One advantage the Centaurs have – they’ve been here before.
The Centaurs lost to RHAM in last year’s Class L state title match. The last time Joel Barlow advanced to a state title game was 2011.
“It feels so, so good,” Woodstock Academy senior Sammie Orlowski said. “I’m so happy to do it with this team. Everyone is so excited. Going into this game, I didn’t know we would play as strong as we did. This team always exceeds my expectations.”
The Lancers (20-4) may have made a mistake before the match.
They gave the Centaurs a little bulletin board material.
In the Bristol Press, Bristol Eastern coach Stacy Rivoira said that one key would be to neutralize Woodstock Academy junior Paula Hernandez.
It fired up Hernandez.
Opponents should know that is not a good thing to do.
“It really made me want to play better,” Hernandez said. “Just knowing they targeted me because they know I can do damage to them, which makes me want to do even more.”
Hernandez made her presence felt in the first set.
She recorded nine kills and the Centaurs rolled to a 25-17 victory.
Hernandez had a personal motive.
She wanted to better her personal best 32 kills.
She fell a little short of that with 20.
“You can slow Paula down a little bit, but, honestly, you can’t stop her. She’s just that dominant of a player. We see that every day in practice and it makes everyone else that much better,” Bottone said.
The Centaurs had Bristol Eastern setter Aliana Rivoira on the run much of the night and didn’t allow her to settle in and set players like Lowe and Amber Blais often.
It meant Bristol Eastern had trouble building any momentum.
“They put up a solid fight, but we were able to execute on the things that we could control more. That’s what our game was. We were able to side out when they served,” Orlowski said.
The best offense the Lancers had was Rivoira’s serve which produced nine service points and four aces, but had some inconsistency to it as it ended with a service error three times.
“It was falling shorter than the servers we faced in the past,” Hernandez said of the Rivoira serve.
The Centaurs won the second set, 25-14, building momentum throughout.
Orlowski had four service points while Marissa Mayhew, Maddy Gronski and Bekah Wesler each put together runs of three consecutive points before side out.
All the while, the Centaurs were having fun.
“We try to keep the positive mindset. If it means we have to dance or sing, it helps. It gets us through each game. We try to get in their heads and it helps us win,” Orlowski said.
The Centaurs had to battle in the third set after Bristol Eastern tied the game at 25.
Hernandez was up to the task.
She took a set from Orlowski (26 assists) for a cross-court kill and followed that up with a powerful hit through the block for a 27-25 Centaur victory and a second chance at a state title.
The loss to RHAM last year still stings.
“It’s something I will not forget because I know we could have done better,” Hernandez said. “It makes you want to do better this year and we’ve had such a long winning (streak) that you want to keep to your standards. It’s a little extra pressure, but we’re ready to take it on.”
“We have the experience from last year. We have a more mature group, one that responds better to adversity, a group who can work through challenges. I fully anticipate (the championship match) being a battle. I don’t think it will come easy, but we’re mellow, we don’t let things bother us,” Bottone said.
Centaurs into semis after another win over East Lyme
Paula Hernandez didn’t expect to get the set from Sammie Orlowski on match point against East Lyme Saturday.
It didn’t mean she didn’t want it.
The Woodstock Academy junior did what she normally does.
She took the Orlowski set, gave a quick glance to where the East Lyme defense was and spiked it down the line.
It ended the Class L state tournament quarterfinal in quick fashion.
The top-seeded Centaurs needed just about 75 minutes to post a 3-0 win over No. 8 East Lyme.
The victory put Woodstock Academy into the Class L semifinals on Wednesday against No. 4 Bristol Eastern.
“I’m ready,” Centaurs coach Adam Bottone said. “I think the girls need to play a little better than (Saturday) for sure. Maybe that’s my nit-picking as a coach, but I think I need to do that. There were some things that we struggled with that I know Bristol Eastern will take advantage of.”
The Lancers downed Tolland, 3-0, on Saturday in a match played earlier than the Woodstock Academy-East Lyme and Bristol Eastern coach Stacy Rivoira was on hand to watch the Centaurs-Vikings quarterfinal.
“I did see a lot of head shaking from her when Paula would go up and kill,” Bottone said with a laugh. “You can block her, but she is going to get you.”
Hernandez wanted to get out of the gym quickly following the match.
The Woodstock Academy junior prom was held on Saturday night.
“One week ago, the (prom) was all I could think about. The last two days, I put prom away because prom is a one-night thing. The volleyball season takes so much effort that I didn’t want prom night to be in my head and I needed to keep involved in the game,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez was able to compartmentalize pretty well.
She led the Centaurs to their 23rd consecutive win with 22 kills and 18 digs.
It was the fourth win for Woodstock Academy over East Lyme this season and its third straight by shutout.
“I was kind of afraid because (East Lyme) was going to play really loose,” senior setter Sammie Orlowski said. “We had to bring a little extra this game just to counter any loose play they had.”
Bottone, prior to the match, didn’t think the Vikings (19-5) would be as easy pickings as they were in the Eastern Connecticut Conference championship when the Centaurs held them to eight points in a set.
But East Lyme again struggled when it came to building momentum.
The Vikings only strung together three points in one instance early in the second game.
Hernandez got six kills in the first set and Orlowski had a hand in most of those. The senior had eight assists in the first game and 30 for the match.
“Paula and I have bonded a lot. Last year, we were just starting to get to know each other. This year, I connect with her. I know what set she want and I give it to her and, as you can see, she puts it on the ground nicely,” Orlowski said.
Bottone thought the play of his front row was the best he had seen all season.
Hernandez looked like she was on a mission from the start.
“I think she just wanted to get to prom early,” Bottone said with a chuckle.
But it was a little more than that.
Early on, East Lyme did get the block up against Hernandez and sent a couple of balls back at the junior.
It’s something she doesn’t take kindly to.
“I’ve talked to her about whether she feels pressure being on the team, being the level of player that she is and she said, sometimes, she feels the pressure when it comes to her statistics. It’s not a pressure that I or anybody else puts on her, it’s something she puts on herself. I told her not to let it get to her, to just be loose and play. But when she gets frustrated, she takes things to another level and that was clear (Saturday) with some of the kills she had.”
Bottone said he thinks Hernandez, at the right Division I school, could play volleyball at that level.
The only thing going against the junior is her size, she is only about 5-feet-9.
“I think if she was to go D-I, she would be better suited to be a defensive specialist or a libero just because the hitters are typically 6-feet tall and above. I think she could definitely play at a smaller D-I school,” Bottone said.
The Centaurs pulled away early in the first set and scored the 25-17 victory.
With that early run in the second game, the Vikings broke out to a 7-2 lead.
But another part of the Centaurs game, the middle hitters, stepped up.
Katie Papp had two of her four blocks in the second set including one that tied the match at 12. A Hernandez kill put the Centaurs ahead to stay as they eventually won Game 2, 25-18.
Sophomore Amelia Large added three blocks.
“That’s the one part of our game that missing, the front-row play in the middle. Whether it’s getting the hits, touches or blocks, we needed that to improve. We struggle way too much against teams that are dominant in the middle,” Bottone said.
It’s what he expects more of from Bristol Eastern.
“They can hit from the outside, middle and opposite really well. They are probably the most well-rounded team that I think we will see all year. I need my middles to be able to get up and get touches on the ball for us to be effective,” Bottone said.
The Centaurs put it all together against a frustrated East Lyme team in the third game and won easily, 25-13.
Woodstock Academy didn’t have it as easy two days earlier against Masuk.
In the first game, the Centaurs thought they had won.
Paige Hine of the Panthers had seemingly slapped the ball long on game point and Woodstock Academy was in celebration mode.
The officials, however, ruled it a deflection.
Masuk went on to win the first game.
Immediately after the loss of the game, Bottone said, “We needed that.”
The wakeup call had been delivered to the Centaurs who took that first game loss and used it as momentum for the remainder of the match and they posted a 3-1 win over the 16th-seeded Panthers.
“Especially with this being my senior year, I’m so happy with how the season is going and I know we can still improve and work harder, but we are getting there,” senior Natalie Low said.
Low said the opening game loss, 30-28, was a disappointment especially after they had thought they won, 29-27.
She said the team lost a little focus which allowed Masuk outside hitter Emily Steffens and middle hitter Brianna Craig to get the two game-winning kills.
Low (16 kills, 16 digs) said Bottone’s “We needed that” statement was accurate.
“We need to keep our heads in it. We can’t afford to get cocky. We have to stay down-to-earth, focus on our game and need to understand that every game could be our last,” Low said.
Bottone expected the first game might be rough. His team had been off for over a week after winning the Eastern Connecticut Conference championship.
So he just, methodically, worked through the problem.
Bottone went to a man-up defense which meant he could move his backs into the seams where Masuk (15-7) was finding success.
He also set up a triple block, suggested by Hernandez, where a third player was behind his two middle hitters, Large and Papp, to clean up the tips that slipped through.
“It worked so much better with three in the middle. She was hitting too much to the side and I couldn’t block it, it started to get in my head. But Coach said just get it out of your head and block her,” Papp said.
Papp answered and so did the rest of the squad.
The Centaurs fell behind, 5-1, in the second game but rallied for the 25-18 victory. They followed that up with 25-16 and 25-14 victories in the last two.
Hernandez finished with 30 kills and Orlowski 37 assists in the win over Masuk.