Sam Cox just wasn’t ready to walk off the high school volleyball court.
To ensure this time stepping onto the hardwood wouldn’t be her last, the senior middle and outside hitter slammed down a career-high 37 kills for Pierson’s third Suffolk County championship crown with a 22-25, 29-27, 20-25, 25-22, 25-23 defeat of top-seeded Mattituck November 6.
“I walked into the gym with my intentions set and a strong mindset,” Cox said. “The thought of a loss wasn’t in any of our heads — we wouldn’t let it be a possibility — but I was very aware that it could be my last game, and if the outcome of the game had been different, I wanted to walk away knowing that we all did everything we could and gave 110 percent.”
Pierson head coach Donna Fischer said she wasn’t surprised with what her senior standout was able to do on the Greenport High School court last Wednesday.
“She’s got such great court sense and leadership on the court,” she said. “When girls were freaking out or a little bit out of position, she knows what to say to get them back in place.”
Of the career-high kills, Fischer added, “If anyone can do it, she can. She was fired up. She did not want to stop.”
Mattituck had won both league matches against Pierson (13-3), a five-setter September 20 and a three-set sweep October 16. But nearly all sets were close, and the Whalers managed to topple the Tuckers (15-2) in the final without junior middle blocker Gylia Dryden, who is recovering from a concussion.
“The girls kept saying ‘Mattituck is so good. They have so many good hitters. They’re so strong. They’re so big. There’s 18 of them and nine of us,’” Fischer said. “I told the girls that they’ve got what it takes — that I believe in them — and that they have to believe in themselves. They brought it.”
That “whatever it takes” team motto was what the team talked about going into the decisive fifth set.
“It was intense,” Fischer said. “Going into the huddle I said, ‘Girls, this is your time. Own it. Take it. Do it. Bring the fire. I don’t want to go home. I want to keep going. Don’t you?’ They said ‘Yes!’ So I said, ‘Then do it!’”
Mattituck had a 12-8 lead early in the fifth set behind seniors Viki Harkin (20 kills) and Charlotte Keil (13 kills, four blocks, three service aces, three assists), but it was as large as the Tuckers’ lead would get. Cox closed out a long volley with one of her signature slams, and sophomore Grace Brosnan served two straight points to cap a four-point tear that knotted the score.
Sophomore setter Sofia Mancino (37 assists) gave her team the lead for good on a service point that put Pierson out front 14-13, but the match was close to the end, with the Whalers boasting no more than a two-point advantage.
“Sofia Mancino is my little pit bull,” Fischer said. “She plays with such heart. She never gives up.”
“Coach Fischer stressed the importance of first contact, meaning we can’t have a great set or hit without a good first pass,” Cox added. “Middle hitters like Angela Gardella and Grace Brosnan were aggressive at the net with blocking. Passers Olivia Cassone, Grace Flanagan, Ashley Weatherwax, and I worked on tracking their hitters and getting a good first pass for our setter Sofia Mancino. Sofia did a great job of hustling to every ball and setting our hitters every play.”
The fifth set was tied at 23-all before Cox crushed a kill down the line for the go-ahead point, and Pierson picked up the match point when sophomore Angela Gardella hit a soft ball that barely cleared the net.
“Being a part of the last few points was, like the entire game, exhilarating,” Cox said. “I didn’t allow myself to let nerves get to me. I told myself to play like I know how and it would all work out.”
Fischer and Mattituck coach Frank Massa were emotional, especially down the stretch.
“Frank Massa is a great coach and a good friend, and we just kept looking at each other and touching our hearts,” Fischer said.
Cox said for she and her teammates, the win brought on a rush of excitement, relief, and pride.
“Our adrenaline was through the roof,” she said. “We all hugged each other and started crying. We didn’t dwell on previous points. We thought it was important to focus on the current play and think ahead. We all knew the team that wanted it more and fought harder would come out with the win.”
While it’s the third county championship for the program, it’s the second since 2017, when Pierson made it to the school’s first state tournament. To get there, the Whalers topped East Rockaway, who played No. 1 Oyster Bay in the Nassau Class C final November 12, with results not available by press time. Pierson will face the winner of that matchup in the Long Island championship November 16 at Hauppauge High School at 5:30 PM. The state tournament at Glens Falls’ Cool Insuring Arena will begin November 23.
“Some of these girls know what it feels like to get to states, and they wanted to get back there,” Fischer said. “We got East Rockaway two years ago, so they know they can do it. I just keep telling them to shoot for the stars.”