The Kingston High varsity volleyball team came into the 2010 season with a depleted roster and a returning coach a decade removed from her last full-time stint at the helm of the program. And so far, the Tigers are playing out the drama perfectly, heading toward a postseason of promise.
Sandy Mancuso-Lopez last coached the Tigers in 2001, closing out a 20-year career with a 344-72 overall record and a combined six league and sectional championships. But when Jessica Roeber — a former player for Mancuso-Lopez — stepped down after five seasons in charge of the program to take care of her three young children, the coaching vacancy called.
“There was no one looking to take the team over, and it just made me think,” said Mancuso-Lopez. “I’m toward the end of my teaching career, and I had this notion that it would be a really neat way to finish the same way I started. I was ready for a challenge, and maybe a return to the coaching ranks would be something I was looking for. I kicked it around with my assistant coach, who used to coach JV. We did a little pro and con thing, and even though there were more cons than pros, I overrode it and thought I’d do it anyway.”
While the idea of the mass departure of a successful senior class might have made other coaches reconsider, Mancuso-Lopez said it gave her a chance to make an impact from the very beginning of her return.
“There were a lot of seniors who graduated, so whatever I was going to bring to the table, it was going to be fresh for the team,” she said.
Despite having what she called “romantic notions” of what returning to coaching would entail, Mancuso-Lopez said even the surprises have made the whole thing worthwhile.
“The timing was right,” she said. “If I didn’t do it now, it wasn’t going to happen. It’s kind of a part of me. I spent a lot of my teaching career doing this, and I felt it was my baby.”
The first splash of reality hit almost immediately.
“I started with a couple of summer workouts and I found that I had forgotten how I did a few things in the past,” she said. “I’m starting to realize in the middle of the season, ‘Oh yeah, this is what I used to do.’ It was a little different coming back, and I’m just starting to get comfortable now. I should have known it was going to take some time, but I have to say that it’s been a nice experience. I kind of met up with a lot of coaches that I coached against and officials who officiated my games over the years.”
Even more important has been the team itself, a group of young players led by senior captain Heather Williams.
“Coach Mancuso is amazing,” said Williams. “Her past record speaks for itself. She has a long history coaching Kingston volleyball, and the team and high school are extremely fortunate to have her back as coach. I’m grateful for what she has taught the team this year, and I also have learned a lot from her.”
Mancuso-Lopez was equally impressed with her team.
“The kids that returned, I can’t ask for a better bunch of girls,” she said. “They were very receptive and tolerant of stupid things I’ve done. I have no patience for that, but they just go with the flow, pretty much.”
Going with the flow has worked this season, at least as far as the record shows. After a clean sweep of Middletown at home on Monday where the Tigers improved to 9-5 overall with an impressive 25-10, 25-16, 25-18 led by Williams’ nine kills, five assists and three aces. Other now familiar names also had a hand in the win, including Maggie Brink, Erin Murphy, Stephanie Diacovo, Salina DeCicco, Alexandra Ost and Jordyn Jaffer.
But while the win looked good on paper, Mancuso-Lopez said she wasn’t happy with where the team was with just two games remaining in the regular season. Kingston’s 5-2 record against Division I competition has already punched their playoff ticket, and the coach is worried they might be getting complacent.
“Our goal was to make sectionals, and we’ve already done that,” she said. “We want more than that now.”
If that’s going to happen, Mancuso-Lopez said, the team needs to do an awful lot of work.
“We beat Middletown in three games, but I was dissatisfied,” she said. “I saw a team that was satisfied with mistakes rather than going after them. We’re kind of up and down. We have a lot of moments that it’s not real pretty out there, but at times we show sparks of putting it all together. It’s a work in progress. We’re trying to build on what we did all season, but it seems to me on any given night you don’t know what you’re going to get. I know what we need to do in order to be successful and win games in sectionals. I want the best for them, and they want to keep playing, and they have a lot of passion for the sport. But we’re going to be playing quality teams and we’re going to have to play quality volleyball.”
Williams said the team understood it had plenty of room to improve, adding that she felt they had what it took to get the job done.
“The team needs to improve on our quickness and reading what’s developing on the other side of the net before it actually happens,” she said. “Once the season got going Coach Mancuso sat us down and told us that she is going to sectionals, and with or without us she will be there and it was up to us if we wanted to be by her side. We chose to work hard and develop as the season progressed.”
Mancuso-Lopez said she’s been impressed by a team that had just four returning players from last year’s squad, with only two starters in their ranks. Now, Kingston’s combination of crafty veterans and exuberant rookies will have to work even harder to work together if they want to see their season continue past the first game of the playoffs. Their coach thinks anything is possible, especially if veterans like Williams continue bringing the less experienced players along.
“I really leaned on them to carry the load this year, and for the most part they have produced,” she said. “They’ve been on the court all season long. They’re super kids, and as far as their patience with the new kids that are on the team, and it’s made a big difference as far as what we’ve become. We’re kind of shaky at times, and we’re not at the top of the heap in our league, but we’re competitive, we’re going to make a splash in sectionals.”
Williams said she relishes the role she serves on the team, both in her skill as a player and as captain.
“Being a captain entails being a leader,” she said. “Keeping the team focused and fired up and being a role model to the younger girls.”
Williams said she believes one of the team’s strengths is that they’ve surprised a lot of opponents who thought their depleted ranks would mean a decline in quality.
“The fact that we are a young team, no one expected us to do this well,” she said.
It’s unlikely the Tigers are flying below the radar anymore, but whether they can still produce with a target on their backs remains to be seen.
For Mancuso-Lopez, the return to coaching hasn’t always been easy, but it’s one she hasn’t regretted.
“It’s kind of nice being back,” she said. “I’m going to hang in there, hopefully until I retire. I want to go out the way I came in.”