Credit an episode of an "escape room game" in Minnesota as a reason why the Wantagh girls volleyball team was able to win a state Class A championship this fall.
In late September, the Warriors went on a trip to the Land of 10,000 Lakes to bond before the rigors of a long season really began. They played in a tournament, watched the University of Minnesota women’s volleyball team play and toured the campus.
Two months later, they took the state’s best competition by storm and won a five-set thriller against Niagara Wheatfield to win the program’s first state championship since 2001.
“We had to put our minds together in the escape room and trust each other on things we said,” said sophomore Emily Van O’Linda, who switched from libero to right side this season for the betterment of the team’s depth.
For the escape room competition, Van O’Linda said the Warriors split into two sides – coach Dan O’Shea’s team and assistant coach Susanne Hoffman’s team. Hoffman’s team, which included Van O’Linda, escaped its room faster.
That was one of the many highlights of the trip, which initially wasn’t the dream volleyball vacation for the Warriors.
“We at first wanted to go to California,” Van O’Linda said. “We wanted warm weather. And when O’Shea said Minnesota, we were all really confused. But we wanted a trip and we took it.”
So, the team fundraised with a car wash, among other things, to make the trek to the Midwest. It was there, Van O’Linda said, that the team learned they had what was necessary to compete.
She said the competition in the tournament was strong, and Wantagh’s 3-3 finish inspired confidence in the group. It was still early in the season, and Wantagh was still blending as a unit, so to succeed against that kind of talent was a good litmus test.
Wantagh, which recorded a 19-1 record, had to shuffle its rotation this offseason. Van O’Linda was the incumbent libero, but her versatility prompted a move to the right side, thus opening the libero position for Jill Laino.
Laino, who had never played libero, earned most valuable player honors for Class A in the state tournament.
“She took that job and made our team that much stronger,” O’Shea said after the team’s victory over Niagara Wheatfield in Glens Falls. “Jill took that job and was phenomenal.”
Van O’Linda took her job and ran with it, too.
“At first, I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to do it, but (O’Shea) helped me a lot and built up my confidence,” she said. “I knew I had to do this to help the team.”
A bevy of hitters around Van O’Linda made Wantagh dangerous. Grace Riddle could compete with any outside hitter in Nassau County, while Tori Spencer, Julia Pugliese and Katie Steele were also options for setter Kayla Rende, who upped her game in the state tournament.
Because of the seniors graduating, Van O’Linda could play an even more prominent role next fall. Could another position change be in the cards?
“I don’t know,” Van O’Linda said. “Whatever coach needs me to do, I’ll do.”
Road to the championship
def. Bethpage, 3-0
def. Hewlett, 3-0
def. Mineola, 3-0
def. Lynbrook, 3-2
LONG ISLAND CHAMPIONSHIP
def. Kings Park, 3-2
def. Burnt-Hills, 1-1
def. Niagara Wheatfield, 1-1
def. Cornwall, 2-0
def. Niagara Wheatfield, 3-2