This is a printer-friendly version of an article from Zip06.com.11/18/2021 11:00 PM
In her first year as head coach of the Valley Regional girls’ volleyball team, Sofia Cullina joined forces with assistant coaches Katie Cullina and Patrice Nelson to ensure that they formed strong bonds with their players. The Warriors adapted nicely and developed solid chemistry to play their volleyball best down the stretch, ultimately finishing the year with 12 victories and a pair of playoff berths.
“As new coaches, we wanted to establish a good bond with our players. We thought coming in we had to gain their respect, but they had to trust us and look up to us,” said Coach Cullina, a Valley volleyball alum who competed alongside her sister Katie before graduating in 2016. “We just wanted to bond with our team and show them that we were there to help and support them.”
The Warriors started their year on a good note by winning their first three matches, but then endured a five-match losing streak during the middle of the season. Coach Cullina knew that the Warriors needed to regroup and figure out how to claw themselves out of a hole. Valley ended its losing streak by earning a 3-2 victory at Morgan on Oct. 8, followed by wins against Haddam-Killingworth and East Hampton, which would go on to be the top two seeds in the Shoreline Conference Tournament this year.
“We started the season off really strong. We beat Waterford in five in our second game. It set off the season in the right direction,” Cullina said. “We hit a slump midseason. The girls took a hard loss and got down on themselves. We had to work together to pull ourselves out of it. One win against Morgan sparked us back to where we started the season. Beating Haddam-Killingworth and East Hampton was a huge confidence booster.”
After winning eight of its last nine regular-season matches, Valley entered the Shoreline Conference Tournament as the No. 5 seed and took a 3-2 defeat at No. 4 Coginchaug in the first round. The Warriors then competed in the Class M State Tournament as the No. 17 seed and took a 3-0 road loss versus No. 16 Barlow in a first-round contest.
Despite the opening-round losses, Coach Cullina feels that the Warriors gained valuable experience by competing in the postseason this year.
“They were super excited about going to Shorelines. Unfortunately, we lost in the first round. But there’s teams who don’t make it, and we did. It’s something to be proud of,” said Cullina. “A lot of the girls on the varsity team, this was their first year going to states. It was a huge accomplishment for them. It was a tough loss, but it was a learning experience for them.”
Valley finished the 2021 campaign with an overall record of 12-10. After undergoing several changes at the start of the season, Coach Cullina saw the Warriors find their stride as the year went on, while displaying tremendous growth both on and off the volleyball court.
“At the beginning of the year, with new coaches, new teammates, and new positions, it was difficult for them. They had to find their rhythm,” Cullina said. “They had to work together despite any differences to dig their way out of it and become a stronger team.”
Valley was led by a senior class that featured six athletes, four of which served as the team’s captains. The Warriors’ seniors captains were Madison Neviaser, Salmi Miller, Emi Bisson, and Chase Conrad. Ella Pitman and Esha Shah were also seniors on the squad. Neviaser earned All-Shoreline Conference First Team accolades for her performances this season. Miller was an All-Shoreline Honorable Mention recipient.
Cullina was pleased with the leadership of all six members of the first senior class that she’s ever worked with as Valley’s head coach.
“The seniors this year were really great. I’m very sad that they’re leaving. Since this is my first year, this is the first time I had to say goodbye,” Sofia Cullina said. “All six had such a huge role on the team. The team coming up is going to have some big shoes to fill. We will miss the senior’s presence on and off the court.”
The good news is that Valley had a large junior class that featured eight players this season. One of those athletes, Audrey Board, earned a spot on the All-Shoreline Conference Second Team. The Warriors’ junior corps also featured Lily Frese, Sophie Scrivo, Riley Burch, Raquel Farray, Brooke Rankin, Kaia Karcich, and Addison Keyworth. Sophomore Ava Frost was also a member of the varsity team.
Between the returning varsity athletes and expected improvement from the JV players, Coach Cullina believes that the Warriors are in good shape heading into next year.
“I’m very excited for next season,” said Cullina. “We have a lot of great talent already on varsity, as well as some JV players who, with some growth over the offseason, I’m excited to see come back next season.”
Now that the 2021 season is done, Cullina feels that she and her fellow coaches were successful in creating bonds with their players. As her team looks to build off of this year, Cullina is hoping that Valley’s success will give the Warriors more confidence as they strive for greater heights in 2022.
“The biggest thing to take away was the team’s confidence. It was hard for them to realize how good of a team they actually were,” Cullina said. “That was something my sister and I had to remind them. They’re a great volleyball team and great players. They started to realize that when they work together, anything is possible.”