While many wondered if the Ridgefield volleyball team would be able to come close to replicating the best season in program history, its coach, Lidania Cibere, felt like a poker player holding a good hand but being modest throwing chips onto the table for fear of scaring off the rest of the players.
First, though the Tigers lost a lot to graduation, most notably top hitter Elizabeth Middlebrook and setter Katie Linekin, Cibere knew she had a strong cast of reserves waiting on the bench for their opportunity. Cibere also spent part of her practices allowing players at the same position to work together, her version of a farm system.
So while Middlebrook and Caroline Curnal got most of the playing time, an up-and-coming sophomore like Mackenzie Wanicka both was getting tutelage and working against two of the FCIAC’s top hitters.
“I definitely think we have about the same talent level as last year,” said Cibere, whose team reached the FCIAC semifinals and the Class L final, before being defeated by Stamford. “We definitely lost experience, but I have a lot of players who have played so much. They play during the offseason and practice all the time. Even though we are missing Elizabeth Middlebrook, who started for me for what seems like forever, a lot of girls are stepping up. One of them is Mackenzie Wanicka. She was on varsity last year. We have a deep bench and a lot of that stems from practices, we are all tighter. Mackenzie, Curnal and Middlebrook last year were doing all the outside hitting drills together. Even though she wasn’t on the court, I knew Mackenzie was going to be ready.”
That was evident during Monday’s straight-set win over the Black Knights, part of a 4-0 start that has elevated the Tigers, in the eyes of many, to team-to-beat status.
“Practicing on the court with them and watching them play, I learned a lot,” Wanicka said. “Since they are such good players it was always a good thing to look at them and take their volleyball experience and put it into my own.”
Wanicka has stepped up and had 10 kills against Stamford. She has complemented Curnal, one of the state’s best all-around players, and Alicia Hill, who got a lot of playing time a year ago.
Another good example is at setter. Linekin was a tremendous quarterback, but Lauren Thrasher has stepped in and been putting up 30-plus assists each match.
“Someone like Laura never complained because Katie was a good libero for me,” Cibere said. “I think she was the best libero on the team last year but she’s also a pretty good setter. She connected really well with the hitters, but Lauren was working with her every day and we had great scrimmages. That’s continuing this year. It has made everyone better.”
Curnal and Stamford’s Andrea O’Connor was the storyline matchup Monday, two great players trying to will their teams to victory. That was apparent in the second set Monday, as O’Connor dominated the first half and Curnal the latter half, with Ridgefield squeezing out a 26-24 win.
Curnal gets attention for her hitting, but tape of Monday’s match will show a player consistent both with serve-receive and passing. Power at net gets most of the acclaim, but Cibere is aware her team will need much more to reach its goals.
“I have depth in the defense department,” Cibere said. “Taylor Brand, Nicole Nielsen and Nicole Miller and a few others. “Everyone is going to talk about our hitting because we have some good hitters, but I think the key to our success this year is going to be passing. If we are able to pass it’s going to bring trouble to the other side. I felt that happened with Andrea. When we were able to get a good pass she was a little late on her blocks. We were able to move the ball around so much, it is going to contain her. I feel like our options this year are better than other teams’.”
Wanicka has been in the spotlight, again because play at net always is a magnet. It can be intimidating to take over for a program coming off a great season — one that might be poised to sustain being a contender for a long time. Wanicka said she had a little pressure, but more of a comfort level.
“I think a lot of the girls who sat bench last year helped give us the ability to play with the team this year,” Wanicka said. “Once we got on the court we had to play with 10 times the ability. If we mess up we know we have to fix it or we won’t be able to win again. We have the ability to have a really good team this year, like last year’s.”
If there has been a common theme to the FCIAC fall season after two weeks, it has been balance in all sports. Volleyball is no different, but the Tigers as of now have established themselves as the favorite.
“I haven’t really spoken about last year,” Cibere said. “I think everyone knows what happened so I don’t have to talk about it. And again it’s a brand new team. We have new faces on the court. It’s a new season and that’s how we are treating it. We would like to emulate it, hopefully with a different ending.”