TRUMBULL — It is hard to recall any squad that has gone unbeaten in FCIAC play this late into the season and received less notoriety than the St. Joseph volleyball team.
That is just fine with the Cadets’ coach, Jeff Babineau, and a motivator for his players.
“We’re definitely an underestimated team but that just makes us work harder,” said Bridget Fatse, one of the Cadets’ go-to hitters. “It’s definitely not something that bothers us, it just gives us more passion.”
In perhaps their highest profile match before the playoffs, the Cadets served notice today that they have the goods to win their first conference title. With Fatse leading a multi-faceted attack, St. Joseph came away with an impressive 25-9, 25-20, 25-21 over Ridgefield.
“We were definitely pumped up,” Fatse said. “It was a game that had a lot of hype around it and we wanted to give it our all and I think we did just that.”
Fatse finished with 17 kills for the Cadets, who improved to 14-1 over all and 11-0 in league play. With five games left in the regular season, St. Joseph now has a two-game lead over both Ridgefield and Greenwich, as well as head-to-head wins, giving it the inside track to the top seed in the FCIAC Tournament.
Asked about his team’s lack of publicity, Babineau smiled and said, “It’s OK. We don’t mind that. The kids are really good to work with and they take it a little personally that they want to perform. It’s good.”
Fatse, Elena Ball (10 kills) and Christina Crocco (7 kills, 6 blocks) took care of the play at net, while setter Grace Vocalina ended up with 34 assists. Vocalina’s 10-point service run ended the decisive opening set.
Perhaps most importantly, the Cadets minimized unforced mistakes.
“We’ve done that all year,” Babineau said. “We kept our service errors down too, which was big. We’ve gotten better at that. We played really well.”
While Darien was dominating the sport for two decades, the Cadets were a strong contender for many years under former coach George Green, who was at today’s match. St. Joseph lost to Darien in the league final four times between 1998 and 2006.
The Tigers have also not won a conference title in the sport, and until last week were considered the favorite after a 10-0 start in which they did not drop a set. Then came a 3-0 loss on Thursday to Greenwich, with the remnants carrying over today.
Ridgefield may want to keep its teams away from the St. Joseph campus. In Saturday’s football game between the two schools, the Cadets overcame a 35-10 fourth-quarter deficit with 28 straight points for the win.
The Tigers never got any traction today. They had errors on their first three service attempts and had difficulty running their offense. There were a number of unforced errors and coach Lidania Cibere later made changes at setter and on the back row to find a combination that could click. It never happened.
“It was bad. They were just really really bad,” Cibere said. Everybody played bad. St. Joe’s played great. We’re not serving well. That kind of set the tone.”
Caroline Curnal, the team’s top hitter, got few clear chances and admittedly was not sharp.
“We just turned the switch off,” Curnal said. “We’re not playing as a team. It’s like we took the Ridgefield name tag off our shirts. We won 30 straight sets but we don’t know how to get back into that again. I think after Thursday’s loss people should have lived and learned. We knew they are a good team and have two good hitters and we just couldn’t solve them today.”
Cibere and Curnal agreed the situation was solvable and needed to take place behind the scenes.
“We just have to start taking practices a lot more seriously,” Curnal said. “We have a lot of seniors and they just have to realize this is our last season all together and we don’t want it to end. It all starts in practice. It’s frustrating because we know this isn’t who we are. We will get back into the gym tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, the Cadets are just fine with continued anonymity.
“We were confident in our ability to play well tonight and when you’re confident anything is possible, and I’m always confident in our team,” Fatse said.