Gary Bynon has never worried much about how many Suburban Council matches his Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake girls’ volleyball program could win in a row. When his mind did wander one day, several years into the streak, the head coach’s goal was a modest one.
“Boy,” he’d thought, “if we could play in a gym where both sets of bleachers are pulled out, that would be awesome.”
Come Wednesday night, that will be the case at Shenendehowa High School, where Bynon’s Spartans will defend their decades-long league winning streak against the Plainsmen starting at 6:30 p.m.
Shenendehowa was the last team to defeat Burnt Hills in a Suburban Council match, and since that October 1990 contest, the Spartans have put together 390 consecutive league victories. Now, with both the Plainsmen and Spartans undefeated in league play this season and a year removed from a five-set classic in their last matchup, the focal point Wednesday of Section II athletics will be on a regular-season matchup between two teams with state-title aspirations.
“This is great for volleyball. It really is,” Bynon said. “People are talking about it and that’s good because, you know, we’ve worked for a very long time to grow the sport and to get it to this point in the area.”
“Extremely, extremely excited and proud,” said Shenendehowa head coach Lori Kessler, whose program has won six consecutive Section II Class AA titles. “I feel like, historically, [volleyball] hasn’t gotten a lot of recognition, and I feel like both programs have worked extremely hard to get to the level we’re at now.”
Each team competed last year in its classification’s state final-four tournament, with Burnt Hills capturing a Class A state championship. This season, each squad is undefeated in league play and has won its respective division in the Suburban Council. Shenendehowa has not lost a set in league play this fall, while the Spartans just lost their first in their 3-1 win last Thursday against Ballston Spa, a victory in which Burnt Hills wrapped up its 29th consecutive divisional championship.
“That was a big win. That was such a huge match for us,” Bynon said. “That’s something our group always takes a lot of pride in: winning division championships.”
Bynon likes to stress that his program plays to win championships, not to extend its league winning streak. The Spartans preparation, for decades now, has been focused around getting better each day.
“That’s all we do,” he said. “We’re here, just preparing.”
Bynon said he tries not to let his players think about the streak. For the Plainsmen, it’s different. Since the preseason, one of Shenendehowa’s main goals for this season has been to end the streak.
“It’s always in the backs of our minds,” Shenendehowa senior Julia Paliwodzinski said. “Now, it’s in the front.”
The Plainsmen, Paliwodzinski said, still take their season one match at a time. But when the team’s play is not operating at its highest level, Kessler knows how to get its attention.
“We have to fix this before we play Burnt Hills,” Kessler said she’ll say to her players.
While Shenendehowa returned all but one player from its 2015 roster, Burnt Hills graduated several key players from last year’s team. Bynon said he has leaned on seniors Ashlynn Apffel, Niki Blatnick and Lexi Pawlusik this season to provide guidance for the younger Spartans, while Kessler said it’s been no surprise to see Bynon create another powerful team.
“He has always set the bar and the standard so high,” Kessler said. “That’s what we’ve been chasing.”
Bynon wants that chase to continue. Regardless of whether his team’s streak hits 391, he hopes the excitement around Wednesday’s match helps keep pushing the sport forward in the Capital Region.
“We can’t be satisfied with the growth of where it is,” Bynon said. “We need to continue to build the game up so matches like this can happen more and more.”