A look at the won-lost ledger reveals that the Notre Dame-Fairfield girls volleyball team did not have an impressive season in 2013. But examining how the Lancers trained and approached their matches would show that this fall was no disappointment at all.
As the season concluded on Thursday, the Lancers were not a dejected group that would fear the future. Although they won't be planning any state championship victory parades for November 2014, they are confident that wins won't nearly be so sparse a year from now.
Jon Mercado, in his second year as coach, attached expectations appropriate for a young team learning the sport. By no means did the Lancers fail to deliver, though they wound up 2013 on Thursday at Lauralton Hall to finish at 2-18 overall if they won (1-19 with a loss) and 1-13 or 0-14 in the SWC.
Notre Dame's 27 players on the combined varsity/junior varsity roster worked hard to acquire and refine their skills, he said. The 11 of the 12 athletes on the varsity who likely will return in 2014, learned plenty of lessons. Captain Brianna Mann, a senior from Norwalk who was All-SWC for the CIAC Class M runners-up in girls basketball in 2012-13, saw the growth. She helped to inspire it, Mercado said. Mann, nicknamed `Mama' by the players, is optimistic Notre Dame can improve substantially next year.
Mercado is thankful for her touch -- and the tremendous respect she had earned among her teammates -- in encouraging the youthful Lancers.
Volleyball has grown on Mann, a four-year player. She had been considering Division I colleges to continue her basketball career in 2014-15, but now, Mann says, she will likely chose between basketball and volleyball.
"You could definitely see that she's the heart and soul of the team," said Brookfield coach Daylon Wilkins after his Bobcats beat the Lancers 3-0 on Monday. "She went for every ball. It was a great overall effort by her."
"She's definitely an emotional leader," Mercado said of Mann. "She has an ability to talk to the athletes candidly. She lets them know exactly what needs to be fixed, but she does it with a positive and loving air. Athletically, she is outstanding, but she's still learning the technical skills. It takes much more to get to play at the next level."
Mann led the Lancers in kills this season at close to 70, Mercado said. She supplied nearly 20 aces and 10 blocks. Mann was often supported by sophomore McKenzie Dobbins, who is beginning to realize her potential, according to Mercado.
A year ago, Mann played in the first five matches before a wrist injury sidelined her for the balance of the season. She moved from outside hitter at the start of 2013 to finish up as a middle hitter.
Notre Dame won the season opener on Sept. 10, a 3-2 victory over Bullard Havens Tech in Bridgeport. But after that contest, the Lancers won but eight games combined in losing their next 18 matches. In that span, they won two games each against Norwalk, Kolbe Cathedral and New Fairfield and one each against Nonnewaug and Weston.
Against Brookfield, at the Sister Marion Rielly Auditorium in Fairfield, the Bobcats swept the Lancers but had plenty of trouble in Game No. 1, winning the opener by 25-21. Mann, ably assisted by Dobbins, was the leading force for Notre Dame. Games 2 and 3 on Monday weren't so competitive, with Brookfield winning by 25-5 and 25-9.
Last year ended with a 1-17 record, when there were 22 girls in the program, but the final 13 losses for the Lancers were each by 3-0.
"The majority of my players are first- and second-year players. The major challenge is getting players acclimated to the more organized fashion of the (high school) game, as opposed to the recreation one where they don't teach the proper techniques and form," Mercado said. "You have to wean away the bad habits and learn the good habits.
"We're growing in knowledge of the game. We're poised to make advances. We're just putting it together. We made strides last year; we made more this year."
Mann said: "I told the team to take those losses and make them your wins next year. They will take (this year's) losing for motivation for next year."