A varsity contributor since seventh grade, sophomore Mackenzie Cole saw her Connetquot Thunderbirds make headlines last season as a team with a number of freshman standouts. Now sophomores, those players are poised to make the jump to the next level.
Connetquot won the Suffolk Class AA title last season before falling in the Long Island Class AA championship to Massapequa, a perennial powerhouse.
Cole, now a four-year starter, was the heart of the T-Birds' defense, recording 575 digs and 65 aces. She said the call up to varsity in seventh grade was a humbling experience, mostly because of the expectations.
"From the beginning, I felt a lot of pressure," Cole said. "But my teammates and my coach always knew I could play up to their standards. I was lucky enough to have great coaches and players supporting me through my journey."
Cole had been a libero for the T-Birds. Now she'll shift to the outside for the upcoming season. She conceded it will be a challenge, but said that her teammates will make the transition easier.
Expectations are that Cole will help lead a talented group of under- and upperclassmen including sophomores Nicole Migliozzi, Cassandra Patsos, Daniella Balsano and Mackenzie Taylor, junior Taylor Cole (Mackenzie's sister) and senior Katie Von Kampen.
Coach Justin Hertz said that while the sophomores are generally the attention-getters, it will be the upperclassmen who push the team to what could be the school's first Long Island championship.
Of course, Connetquot will have to run through the other powerhouses of Class AA.
Smithtown East, led by Kendra Harlow and Haley Anderson, won the Suffolk championship two seasons ago. Coach George Alamia said that while the Bulls are starting two sophomores in key positions, his squad should improve within each match.
Ward Melville will also be a competitor, led by star senior Alex Stein and juniors Lara Atalay and Ellen Li. Coach Charlie Fernandes said his team will be able to score points, but his early concerns are the team's defense and blocking.
Kings Park, fresh off a victory over South Side in the Long Island Class A final, is in an interesting spot after losing Amanda Gannon, Newsday's 2014 Long Island Player of the Year.
Coach Ed Manly said that his team has a "plug-and-play mentality" and that the upcoming season is not a rebuild, but a reload. Seniors Stephanie Cornwell and Jaclyn Wilton figure to lead the Kingsmen against Class A foes Islip, led by senior Julia Hande, and Sayville, led by senior Victoria Keghlian.
Massapequa and its 15 straight Nassau titles are the Class AA favorites again with junior Jamie Smith and senior Kole Pollock leading the charge.
Plainview JFK, Baldwin and East Meadow should also be competitive in Nassau.
Glenn continues to be the favorite in Class B after 14 straight Long Island titles. Grace Cergol and Alexis Groark lead the way.
Bayport-Blue Point will be a factor with sophomore Lauren Wilke and senior Lauren Hansen.
Lynbrook will be a challenger in Nassau, as the Owls have several key players in Shannon Wren, Stephanie Milillo, Morgan Smithwick, Lara LoIacono and Aleksandra Ratkiewicz returning. Senior Erin Russell will make sure Seaford is in contention as well.
Mattituck, winner of last year's Class C final over East Rockaway, is favored to win the class again with senior Carly Doorhy leading the way.
St. Anthony's should earn the CHSAA title for the seventh time in the past eight seasons thanks to seniors Danielle Vaiano and Victoria Capogna. Kellenberg, led by senior Victoria Moulder, figure to be St. Anthony's main competition, along with Holy Trinity. Coach Donna Newman said her St. Anthony's team is particularly strong because of nine seniors who have been together since they first began playing the sport.