No one associated with the Westhill volleyball program was born when it last dominated the FCIAC, winning three straight titles nearly four decades ago. Winnie Hamilton was the coach and Fairfield Warde was the Vikings’ biggest rival.
There was a run of lean years until last fall when, under third-year coach Marianna Linnehan, they finished with a 13-8 record. Still, the Vikings were the odd team out in a three-way tiebreaker for the final spots in the FCIAC Tournament. To make matters worse, they were eliminated by one of those schools, New Canaan, in the opening round of the state playoffs.
“Last year I wanted to make states, I wanted to make FCIACs, I wanted to be city champs,” Linnehan said. “This year our expectation is let’s get as far as we can. Let’s take this all the way.”
It was an ambitious goal but one, with the regular season winding down, well within the Vikings’ reach. They are 14-1 and currently tied for first place in the conference with St. Joseph, which is responsible for their lone setback. With just three seniors who arrived the same year as Linnehan, and an eager and talented group that possesses many of the same qualities that made their coach a standout player at Stamford High, the school’s first conference title in the sport since 1986 is no longer a fantasy.
“They trust one another and they’re friends and they love playing,” Linnehan said. “They love what they do. They always strive to be better on their own. Without me even saying anything. They are constantly looking at what they can do better. Constantly asking for help. You can’t teach the drive to want to be better and the drive to win. They have that. I just give them the tools to help them.”
That attention to detail and relentless attitude is familiar to Linnehan. It drove her from helping lead the Black Knights to two FCIAC finals, then to Concordia College for a year, and then to Eastern Connecticut, where in just three years she set the school record for digs.
Linnehan remained there as an assistant, then had stints at Stamford, Manhattan College and Westhill, where she was promoted after three years.
Nina Bakuradze, a senior libero, credited Linnehan with her development.
“Over the seasons she’s seen who I am as a player and obviously all of her advice and everything in general has motivated me to be the player that I am,” Bakuradze said. “It wasn’t hard to get to where I am because of her coaching abilities. I’ve had such a good experience with the team. It’s not work. It’s more fun and I’ve gotten to experience something so great.”
The Vikings returned all of their starters, including top hitters Betsy Sachs and Nikki Newcomer, setters Sophia Thagouras and Vasiliki Servos, and tap the versatility of players like Caroline Boyd, one of six juniors that help carry the team.
“I try to make them individually the best they can be knowing their abilities,” Linnehan said. “So they know that when I push them and push them hard they know they are capable of more. If they weren’t capable of it I wouldn’t push them to the extent that I do. Each player can do anything. Each player can hit, each player can pass, each player can set, each player can serve. I have a very well-rounded team.”
Linnehan was a fierce competitor and her players share that trait.
“They want to play the best teams in the league,” Linnehan said. “They don’t want to play against the lower teams.”
The loss to the Cadets was one of two five-set matches they have played. Westhill lost a big lead in the fourth set. Linnehan said it was a growing experience: a week later the team rallied and closed out a win over Staples in four sets.
“When they lost to St. Joseph they really learned a lesson,” Linnehan said. “I think it was a real eye opener and a lesson learner. Taking the pressure off after being undefeated at that point. They learned. When we played Staples they learned to fight for something that they wanted instead of taking it to a five-game match.”
Bakuradze said the players are extremely close, an intangible that has proved important.
“This year the connection we have is unbelievable,” Bakuradze said. “We all hang out outside of practice, we all enjoy each other’s presence. Going to practice is fun and positive. There’s no negative outlook. We’re all just having fun.”
Bakuradze said Linnehan has also proved to be the perfect coach for a team looking for the path to achieve its hopes.
“She knows when it’s time to work, and I really appreciate it because we do have fun in practice, and sure she’s a great person in general, but as a coach she’s pushed me to limits I didn’t know I could even go,” Bakuradze said. “Whether it’s conditioning or actual skills. I’ve never actually had someone push me that far, which is so crazy to see how far I’ve come. She sees more in us than we do and she knows how much potential we have, so when the job doesn’t get done she gets more frustrated with us because she knows we can do it. She knows we can finish the set, or get that next point or beat that really top team.”
Westhill still has some tough matches left, starting tomorrow against Fairfield Ludlowe, as it tries to earn a high seed for the playoffs. There is no clear-cut favorite; right now one game separates the top four teams.
Linnehan never got a chance to win an FCIAC title as a player. She said doing it as a coach would be the ultimate reward.
“I would love it,” Linnehan said. “And you know what, I wouldn’t even love it for myself. I talked to my girls about this. I want to win for you. Not for me. I said I don’t need a confidence booster. I want you to win for yourselves because I want you to feel what I did when I was playing in the FCIAC in high school. Because it is the greatest feeling in the world and you will remember it the rest of your life.”