The Panthers made the tournament for the first time since 2016.
First-year head coach Samantha Richner and her Whitman-Hanson Regional High girls’ volleyball squad came into the fall on a mission.
“The team and I set a goal at the beginning of the season, which was to make tournament,” Richner said.
It was certainly an aggressive goal, considering the program hadn’t experienced a postseason berth since 2016 and graduated most of its starting unit from an eight-win 2018 campaign, to boot. But the Panthers knew what they were capable of, and they were right, punching their postseason ticket with five games to spare in the regular season with a 3-2 win over Plymouth North.
W-H entered the Div. 1 South tournament seeded 11th, which meant a trip to Durfee to take on the seventh-seeded Hilltoppers in the first round.
The Panthers rallied from one-set deficits twice, but were ultimately unable to put Durfee away in the fifth set, falling, 15-13. Richner’s had a simple message to her team, which finished the season 12-9, after the loss.
“I basically said that no one’s head should be hung, and that they have so much to be proud of,” she recalled. “They truly played their hearts out, and it was an accomplishment just making it to tournament.”
Sophomore hitter Lily Welch (89 kills, 57 solo blocks, 13 block assists and five aces this season) nearly willed the Panthers to victory, posting a team-high five solo blocks and 19 kills, including a dominating stretch in the fourth set to rally the Panthers out of a hole.
“Lily is a phenomenal athlete, and she stepped up for us big that night,” Richner said. “I am so excited to be able to work with Lily these next two seasons, and to be able to watch her grow and develop as an athlete.”
In the back, senior captain and libero Maya Faich (244 digs and 19 aces this season) also put forth a valiant effort in the loss, notching 15 digs and three aces. Faich was named a league all-star and the team’s MVP.
“Maya is leaving huge shoes to fill,” said Richner, whose team began the season 9-4. “She is an amazing girl both on and off the court. I am not sure if we will be able to replace her anytime soon.”
Senior two-year captain and hitter Lexi Connolly (165 digs, 49 kills and 39 aces this season) is also leaving some pretty big shoes to fill.
“Lexi was a great player to have on the court,” Richner said. “She played both front and back row, which was unique to our team.”
Senior setter Liv Martin (34 digs and 29 kills this season) is another two-year captain, who shouldered a big load this season.
“Liv was an amazing player to have on the team,” Richner said. “Her dedication, motivation and attitude was something special.”
Sophomore hitter Abby Martin (94 kills and 40 solo blocks this season) and junior setter Sophia Berardinelli (248 assists, 22 aces and 14 kills this season) were also crucial to the Panthers’ success.
“Abby was one of our strongest hitters; we are so fortunate to have her for another two years,” Richner said. “Sophia is an unbelievable setter, who can also play back row and hit; she is an unbelievable all-around player.”
And with those two, along with Welch, headlining the players set to return, Richner can’t help but be optimistic about the direction of the club.
“The future of the program is looking bright,” said the coach. “We have a lot of strong players coming back, as well as potential talent from the JV and freshman teams.”