There is a certain celebrity that comes with being the best in sports. The top teams and players get the press from reporters, praise from fans, and respect from their opponents, but the narrative shifts from, “What can they do?” to “What they have to do,” once the postseason rolls around.
That’s the cost of being the best, which, for local volleyball teams this past week, meant being the No. 1 seed in the Section 1 tournament. With prominence comes expectations, and those expectations only grow as a team becomes more successful throughout the season.
Some handle it better than others.
Panas rolled to a second consecutive Section 1 Class A title Saturday, handily sweeping third-seeded Pelham in under an hour’s time. The Panthers (18-0) dropped just one set all year, which came to Hen Hud in the semifinals Thursday.
“I don’t want to say they weren’t ready for it, but I think they were a little shocked at how hard somebody played against them,” Panas head coach Joe Felipe said of the Hen Hud match.
Ossining (20-1), which won its first title since 2004 on Friday, welcomed the hype it had built up this year, and wished there was more.
“You told us we were the underdogs, we were mad,” Ossining freshman Mychael Vernon said, smiling, referring to the Journal News/lohud pegging the Pride as a “sleeper” team in Class AA at the beginning of the season.
Pawling (16-0), on the other hand, has been “playing nervous” as the season winds down and the Tigers’ wins pile up, according to head coach Jessica Pulford.
“I feel like there’s such a bull’s-eye on their back this year that they’re scared,” Pulford said, after repeating as Section 1 Class C champs against Dobbs Ferry on Friday. “The last game and this game, they’re terrified of losing because they think everybody’s hyped up this year as, ‘It’s Pawling’s year! It’s Pawling’s year! It’s such a big year — you’ve got to do it this year!’ and I think they’re playing scared.”
All four 1-seeds reached the finals in their respective classes at this year’s tournament, while three 2-seeds also advanced to the title match. Westlake was the only 2-seed to emerge victorious, knocking off Lourdes in an unbelievable Class B final Saturday.
Westlake senior setter Caleigh Carr said the team “came in very calm” and “very confident” to the title match. Wildcats coaches Carmen Bates and Gina Perino each said they prefer to be the underdog as opposed to the top dog. Bates said she was nervous when the Journal News/lohud predicted Westlake to win the section title at the beginning of the season.
Perino, an assistant at Westlake, is also the head coach of softball at Pleasantville. She said the key to managing expectations with players is to praise the positive aspects of their game, but not let them get away with bad habits.
“When they do something that is great, I’m all in it with them,” she said. “When they’re not playing up to their expectations, we’re like, ‘No, that’s not going to work,’ and Carmen is the same way, so we feed off each other, which makes it a great fit.”
Perino lost in the section finals for volleyball, basketball, and softball her junior year of high school before going undefeated in all three sports the following year. Perino said focus can waver with age.
“Maybe even at the college level — you’re expected to win, and then sometimes you see these upsets where nobody had a right to beat them, but they probably sat back and didn’t do the things they needed to do,” she said. “As much as your coaches can say, ‘You better buy into this,’ the older you get, sometimes you don’t.”