Steve Lapham has coached some great volleyball teams during his more than two-decade tenure at Greenwich High School, but he knows the squad he guided this fall was indeed, unique.
“I’m proud to have them call themselves the ’21 Cardinals,” Lapham said. “I think it’s the best team we’ve ever had. I would say it’s probably the best. This team has been lights out all through the season.”
Lapham said those words shortly after victory No. 26 on the season for the Cardinals – a triumph that capped a 2021 season to remember.
Dominant from start to finish this fall, top-seeded Greenwich put the exclamation point on its impressive season, defeating 12th-seeded Fairfield Ludlowe, 3-0, in the championship game of the CIAC Class LL Tournament, before a large, enthusiastic crowd at East Haven High School.
The victory gave the Cardinals their third state championship. They topped Amity for the Class LL title in 2017 and beat Ludlowe in the 2010 Class LL final, under Lapham’s tutelage.
Saturday night’s win capped an eye-opening 26-1 season for the Cardinals that saw them sweep 22 opponents. Greenwich won Saturday’s match by set scores of 25-15, 25-12, 25-17.
Cardinals senior outside hitter Adele Sotgiu was named the MVP. She totaled seven kills and her passing was outstanding throughout.
“It feels so amazing,” said Sotgiu, a tri-captain. “All season, we had such good team chemistry and we played so hard together so it feels so nice to not only win FCIACs, but states too.”
Besides enjoying playing before their home crowd, Greenwich liked playing road matches throughout the season, as the opposition’s crowd gave them added motivation. Ludlowe brought a lot of fans to East Haven High School, which was a welcome sight to the Cards.
“We really used the fuel from the Ludlowe student section,” Sotgiu said. “They had a massive section, they were loud and they were cheering on their team and we just used that for energy to put it all out on the court.”
Junior setter Lucia Spanjol of Greenwich, who registered 30 assists, also felt the intensity from the atmosphere.
“We just came into it knowing that even though we beat them once, we could still lose and we really came in with a ton of energy knowing they would have a huge crowd and we let that crowd fuel us, instead of bringing us down,” Spanjol said.
During the regular season, the Falcons gave the Cardinals one of their closest matches, as they pulled out a 3-2 road win on Sept. 30. In Saturday night’s Class LL title matchup, the Cardinals played from ahead throughout and weren’t about to go to five sets in this meeting.
“Going into it, we knew it was going to be a competitive game and we knew we had to fight for every point,” Greenwich senior middle hitter/blocker and tri-captain Liana Sarkissian said. “I’m just so happy right now. I think the key was playing every point like the last point. It is the state finals, so you have to expect the unexpected.”
Sarkissian recorded seven kills, junior outside hitter Maggie Saleeby tallied eight kills, senior tri-captain Sophie Jones had seven kills and three aces and Spanjol notched 30 assists for the Class LL and FCIAC champion Cardinals, who received strong defensive play from sophomore libero Hayley Dionis.
The Saleeby household has two state volleyball state championship medals. Saleeby’s older sister Lilly Saleeby, a 2021 GHS graduate, was a member of Greenwich’s 2017 Class LL champion team that defeated Amity for the title.
“It’s a great moment right now,” Maggie Saleeby said. “After that short season (2020 season) we were like, we have to give it our all and come and play. Especially after the loss of such great players. We had to give it our all every point and that’s what got us this win tonight. We just focused on staying calm, doing our thing and we were all just solid.”
Greenwich clicked from the outset in the state championship match.
“It doesn’t feel real honestly,” Sarkissian said of the team’s title-winning match.
The Falcons, who advanced to the championship match by downing top-seeded Cheshire in the semifinals, 3-1, finished their season at 18-7.
“We had a tough time staying in system,” Ludlowe coach Tina Rembish said. “To get to this level being ranked the No. 12 seed is amazing. We thought we could, but it just didn’t work out for us tonight.”
Senior Olivia Leal recorded eight digs, senior Gabby Price had 12 assists, senior Jane Ransome posted six kills and Caitlin Finnegan had four kills for the Falcons.
“Each girl had to overcome many obstacles and they have nothing to be ashamed of, we’re very proud,” Rembish said.
In the first game, Greenwich jumped out to a 14-7 lead behind consecutive aces by Saleeby. A kill by junior Caitlin Finnegan brought Ludlowe to within 16-12 later in the set, but a Saleeby kill increased the Cards’ lead.
Strong serving by Jones and a Sarkissian kill enabled Greenwich to close out the first set. Greenwich seized comfortable leads of 11-3 and 15-4 in the second set, as junior Lana Korsun registered effective serves and Sarkissian, Sotgiu and Saleeby were imposing forces.
With Sotgiu serving, Greenwich took a 4-0 lead in the third set, after a Saleeby kill. The Falcons rallied to tie the score at 7-7, but Sarkissian pounded a kill at the net, giving the Cards the lead for good at 8-7. After a kill by Ransome pulled Ludlowe to within 9-8, Greenwich built on to its advantage, before sealing the match and the state title.
“This what we were looking for the whole season, this was one of our goals,” Jones said. “We just play our best and see what we can do. I think everyone on our team gives 100 percent, we work hard in practice and we push each other.”
Said Spanjol: “It feels insane, it hasn’t really set in yet, but it’s so crazy that we’re FCIAC and state first-place winners. We were connecting really well and we had a lot of energy coming into it. We really brought everything we had.”
In the shortened 2020 season, Greenwich posted a 12-0 record and won the FCIAC West Region championship, so after going 26-1 this fall, the team is 38-1 over a two-season span.
“I’m super proud,” Lapham said. “The work they put in and to keep believing in what I preach every day, it’s super. I love to see this, because they earned it. Even the second six, who doesn’t get in a lot, especially at the end of the season, they have always been a team-centered group.”
The victory marked the final match for Cardinals seniors Sotgiu, Sarkissian and Jones. The trio left an outstanding legacy.
“I think this is a great way to end it and it’s one of the best teams to end it on too,” Jones said.
As for receiving the MVP, Sotgiu said: “I couldn’t do it without my team, it feels so amazing. We did it all together.”