Darien girls volleyball team turns page to new season

Darien’s Lindsey Fay plays the net during the Wave’s match against Greenwich last fall. — Darien Athletic Foundation photo

It wasn’t that long ago the Darien High School girls volleyball program ruled the entire state.

Talk about ruling. The Blue Wave won state championships 15 out of 17 years from 1993-2009, including a streak of nine in a row. Darien also captured 22 of 25 FCIAC titles from 1990-2014, including a run of 12 straight.

All told, the proud and tradition-rich DHS girls volleyball program has 17 state crowns and 23 FCIAC championships on its remarkable resume, all of them under Hall of Fame coach Laurie LaRusso, who’s been in charge since 1982.

Cristina Escajadillo gets set to serve up a winner last season. Escajadillo returns as a co-captain alongside fellow seniors Gabby Highton and Lindsay Bennett — Darien Athletic Foundation photo

The last two seasons, however, have been lean years, at least by Darien standards. After finishing 25-0 and winning another state title in 2014 and then going 20-2 in 2015, the Blue Wave slipped to 9-9 during the 2016 regular season and 8-11 a year ago. They were swept in three games in the opening round of the state tournament both years to close out the program’s first losing seasons since Gerald Ford occupied the White House.

But with no fewer than 16 returning players, which includes a talented group of 10 juniors, Darien could be poised to return to its winning ways.

Now, no one is predicting a championship this fall. That remains to be seen. But a very successful 2018 campaign certainly appears attainable.

Just don’t confuse the past with the present and future. You see, for all the state and league championships Darien has won the last three decades, LaRusso insists none of that has anything to do with this year’s team.

“We don’t talk about it. We only talk about this year,” the 2017 National Coach of the Year said. “It’s been that way since the day I got here till 37 years later. We only worry what we can control. We worry about us.”

Perhaps that’s been the key to the Blue Wave’s glorious past in girls volleyball. Every team establishes its own identity. This year’s team will begin to make its own mark when it opens the season Thursday at Newtown, a team Darien split two non-league games with last year. They’ll play a second time again this season with the rematch at DHS Oct. 8.

“They’re usually pretty good,” LaRusso said. “We’ll find out pretty quick how good we are.”

But while the veteran coach refrains from comparing any of her past teams to one another, one thing that is constant is the importance she places on senior leadership on all her teams. This season will be no exception with Gabby Highton, Lindsay Bennett and Cristina Escajadillo taking on that role.

“They’re my only three seniors, they’re all captains, and they’re all awesome. I’m fortunate to have them,” LaRusso pointed out. “The three of them set the tone in the gym and get the team to work together. I can’t say enough about them.”

Highton is an opposite hitter, Bennett an outside hitter, and Escajadillo a setter.

Among that skilled group of juniors that LaRusso calls “extremely talented” are hitters Hassana Arbubakrr and Lindsey Fay, and Sophie Talwalkar, a ‘libero’ or defensive specialist.

They’re joined by fellow juniors Elaina Cummiskey, Sophie Pullen, Coco Jepsen and Heather Grant, all hitters, along with Rosali Pirone, an outside defensive specialist, setter Rachel Perrett, and Deanna Attisani, a libero.

A trio of sophomores — Emily Hyatt, Rachel Herget and Cavan Duffy — should also be in the mix, along with freshman Aerin Bowman.

“Right now we don’t have a set lineup,” LaRusso noted. “We only had one scrimmage (a seven-team ‘Play Day’ at Darien last Saturday) so I’m still working on the lineup. I saw some good things, but we still have a lot of work to do.

“We’re looking to improve on last year and I’m truly blessed to have a really good group of kids. They’re just great kids who work hard.”