Grind away. Find a way.
That’s become an annual theme for the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake girls’ volleyball team, which makes its 12th straight appearance in the state tournament semifinals Saturday morning at the Glens Falls Civic Center.
“The biggest thing about pool play, and we talk about it all the time, is survival. It keeps coming back to that,” Spartans coach Gary Bynon said Wednesday after a scrimmage with fellow semifinal qualifiers Johnstown and Waterford-Halfmoon. “You play two games against one of the best teams in the state, you stop, and then you do it again. It’s mentally taxing.”
The top two teams of four in each class advance to Sunday’s finals. Burnt Hills made it through the pool round eight times in the last 11 years, and took it a step farther on five occasions with state championship performances in 2002, 2004, 2005, 2011 and 2012.
“This is this team’s first regional championship and first state final four,” said Bynon, who graduated seven seniors from his 29-2 2012 team. “This is their chance, and they’re going to try to make the most of it.”
Junior setter and outside hitter Jessica Dillon said Burnt Hills (25-4) is prepared to face the challenge in a Class A pool group that includes Pittsford Sutherland, Kings Park and Cornwall. The Spartans defeated Pittsford Sutherland in last year’s state final in four sets, yet lost to the Knights in two sets in the title match at their Cider Challenge Tournament in September.
Burnt Hills also lost to Kings Park in three sets in October in the title match at the John Glenn Tournament.
“We’re in much better shape than we were earlier in the season, and we’re mentally prepared for anything that comes at us,” said Dillon, who, along with seniors Lindsay Bynon and Kathleen Schurman, will be participating in their fourth final four. “Playing in our league has helped us with the mental part, and we’re ready to handle it. ”
Burnt Hills pushed pressure aside and extended its Suburban Council winning streak to 345 matches with another 16-0 run before beating Niskayuna and Queensbury for the Section II title. The Spartans then topped Oswego for their 12th straight regional crown.
The level of competition will be elevated greatly on Saturday. Pittsford Sutherland (36-2, 35-0 vs. New York teams), led by Ohio State-bound hitter Luisa Schirmer, is the favorite, according to Bynon. The Knights beat the Spartans in the 2010 state final.
“We’ve got two of the top-100 teams in the country,” Bynon said of Pittsford Sutherland and Kings Park. “Both times we played them we had our chances. We’ve got to be more consistent with our play. It’s the state final four and you better be pretty good.”
Burnt Hills was in top form in its sweep of Oswego, with Dillon collecting 35 assists, Kathleen Schurman and Natalie Schurman combining for 19 kills and 21 digs, and Jaleah Owens adding eight kills and three blocks.
“Jessica did an excellent job distributing the ball and running our offense, and that’s what we need to do,” said Bynon. “We’re not going to throw four 6-foot-4 players at you, but we will throw a lot of heart at you.”
Burnt Hills’ abilty to dig the ball to set its offense in motion will be a must for success in its six pool matches, the first two against Cornwall starting at 8:30. The Spartans have a break before playing Pittsford Sutherland, and another break before meeting Kings Park.
“You’ve got to keep yourself in it. Every ball, expect it to come back,” said Dillon. “Defense wins championships.”
“We’ve got to play defense. People talk about digs, but we need to block well, too,” said Bynon, who’ll look for the Schurmans, Owens, Meghan Keyes and Emma Sprotbery to go high at the net. “Our blocking has really gotten better since Oct. 8.”
That’s the night Owens came off the bench and had eight blocks and four kills to help BH-BL hold off Shenendehowa in its most competitive league match.
“She’s become a go-to player to stop runs,” Bynon said of the junior middle. “She’s really come on for us.”
Burnt Hills went 5-1 in pool play last year, with a split against Pittsford Sutherland and a sweep of King Park.
“It’s mentally tough, but you have to battle through it,” said Dillon. “If you lose one, you’ve got to get ready to come back. You could have to go out there where it’s the first to 25 to go to the final. You’ve got to be ready to step up in that game.”
Johnstown (Class B) and Voorheesville (Class C) will also see pool action Saturday morning. The Lady Bills go against Owego, Honeoye Falls-Lima and John Glenn, the two-time defending Class B champ and a winner of five titles since 2004. Voorheesville plays Millbrook, Mattituck and Eden. Eden beat Voorheesville in the 2012 final and has accumulated four consecutive championships in Class C and Class B.
Waterford-Halfmoon makes its first semifinal appearance in the Class D session that begins at 3. The Fordians are grouped with 2012 runner-up and 2011 champ Haldane, Tioga and Randolph.