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East Lyme, NFA volleyball happy to be playing again

Norwich — It was Senior Night for the Norwich Free Academy girls' volleyball team on Tuesday. Alumni Gym was decorated with streamers over the doorways. Posters of the seniors and balloons lined the walls. The seniors were honored with their parents — outside — before their match against East Lyme because fans aren't allowed inside.

It was a day worth celebrating because it was just the second match of the season for NFA because Norwich schools were shut down almost all of October.

"Not to be Debbie Downer, but the first day (of the shutdown) I was like, 'Are we ever going to go back?,'" NFA senior Sarah Ericson said. "It was hard to think that we weren't going to get much of a season."

It was also the sixth match of the season for East Lyme due to a two-week shutdown and other cancellations. The Vikings beat the Wildcats 25-17, 25-14, 25-20 in the Eastern Connecticut Conference match.

"You never know what's going to get canceled," Vikings head coach Jack Biggs said. "We're just happy to be playing a little bit in the last week of (the regular) season, and I'm sure they are, too."

Ericson said, "(There was) definitely excitement to just get back on the court and be able to play a game and be here with the girls and the team. It was definitely exciting. Would've liked to have come out with the victory, but just being here, I'm grateful that we were given the opportunity to play again."

Sophomore Shea McMunn had 15 assists for the Vikings (5-1) and junior Ella Freed had 10 kills.

Senior Arianna Gauthier had 15 digs, classmate Katherine Reischeri had three kills and three aces, and Ericson had 10 assists and three kills for the Wildcats (0-2). Senior Kayley Williams also had three kills.

The city of Norwich shut down schools on Oct. 2, the day after the CIAC's abbreviated fall high school season began. Compounding matters for NFA was that it had a new head coach, Tamara Deberry.

"(It's been) nothing like I expected it to be," Deberry said about her first year after a deep sigh. "Not only did I have to learn the girls, their personalities, their positions, where they've played, but I also had to put them in a position to succeed during this pandemic, too. So (it's been) very difficult, but I'm up for the challenge."

The Wildcats were able to start practicing together again on Friday. They had their third day of practice on Monday.

"We were doing home workouts, trying to run outside if the weather allowed us to," Ericson said. "(We were) just trying to stay in touch so we didn't lose (our) togetherness. We were able to stay in touch and be together, virtually, as much as we could.

"(I was) trying to stay positive and keep in mind that we could come back and (feel) lucky we were able to play (Tuesday)."

East Lyme went 21 days without volleyball. It played its first two matches on the first two days of the season and didn't play again until Oct. 23 against Ledyard.

"This COVID thing, you never know when you're going to come back, when you're going to be out of school, all that stuff," Vikings senior Jaylyn Mueller said.

Biggs said, "The feeling of March 13 last year when they shut schools down and everything stopped in time, and we just walked out of school and never came back, that's kind of what it felt like when we went out for two weeks (last month).

"We worked really hard (during the preseason), then it was 'whoop', nothing. No practices. No get togethers. No team bonding. Nothing."

Biggs, who has coached the team to two CIAC state titles in his previous 22 seasons, gave his players time to themselves during the shutdown and emailed them workouts and drills to do from home. A core group of them played last season but were all taking on bigger roles this season.

"It was so weird," Mueller said. "We needed that time. We didn't need that time off. We definitely needed to practice and definitely get ready for our next games."

East Lyme controlled the first two games Tuesday. Gauthier got NFA off to a 3-0 start at the service line to start Game 3. It went ahead by as much as 9-3.

Senior Brooklyn Geida got on a roll at the service line to help the Vikings rally. They went on a 6-0 run, featuring McMunn setting Freed up for three kills, to go ahead 10-9.

Geida served two aces during a 5-0 run that pushed East Lyme ahead, 22-19.

Vikings junior Shannon Pierce served two aces to end the match.

"Being around each other, socially, emotionally, it just makes everyone feel good," Biggs said. "Yes, we want to win. Yes, we're here to compete. All those things come into play. But I think the biggest thing is we get one more day together, whether it be in the gym, at a game, at a practice. So we've got to cherish that time because it could be over tomorrow."

Ericson said, "A lot of credit to the younger kids for putting this (Senior Night) together. It was a great Senior Night, even though nobody could be here. All of our parents were watching on the Hudl stream or YouTube stream.

"It did feel like a good Senior Night, and I got to be here with everybody."

n.griffen@theday.com

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