When it was over, when there were no digs to dive for, no more kills to slam down over the net, the three captains came together for a hug.
Keira McCaffrey, Caitlin Kenney and Maggie Duda are three of six senior starters on the Mineola volleyball team, a squad that blew away expectations and history to reach the first state semifinal the school had ever seen in the sport.
This team, these seniors, won a county championship, then a Long Island championship, winning nail-biters and blowouts along the way, all to earn the right to take a five-hour bus ride last week up I-87 to Glens Falls, to play in the Class A final four.
And when they came up just short in that semifinal on Saturday, losing to Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake 25-23, 26-24, 25-19 at Cool Insuring Arena, there was of course sadness.
But Duda refused to wallow for long. She called her two buddies together for a group embrace.
“I just told them that I’m just so proud of us,” Duda said. “That we were able to do this, and come here after all our hard work, is just so amazing and great.”
Coach Hyunah Park, who led this group to this moment over the past several years, said this year’s group was “one of a kind” for a very specific reason.
“The combination of the kindness they show, and the competitiveness they show, you don’t always get those two together on one team,” Park said. “When kids are so nice, sometimes they’re not as fierce and competitive on the court.
“But that this team has both, was really special. It was an amazing season and I’m so proud of them.”
That season looked like it had a good chance of continuing Saturday, but Park said she knew things may be difficult when both teams walked on the court for the match.
“They were humongous, bigger than they looked on film,” Park said. “And we’re used to being the biggest, with three six-footers. But we saw their size and I was a little concerned.”
With Caitlin Kenney telling her coach she was “nerve-cited” for the match, the Mustangs came out strong and stood right up the eight-time state champion Spartans.
Game 1 never saw a lead of more than three points for either squad, but finally the Spartans grabbed a 24-21 edge.
But Mineola battled back and cut the deficit to 24-23 on a big block by Ava Murphy. But Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake finished the game with a kill off Mineola’s serve to hang on.
Game 2 saw much of the same, with Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake using its size to try to neutralize McCaffrey, the star hitter who had 17 kills in the Long Island championship match.
With the scored tied at 22, McCaffrey came through with an enormous stuff block, and moments later the 6-foot-1 hitter put down a spike to tie it at 24.
But again the Spartans were just a bit tougher at the end, and squeezed out a win to grab a two-set lead.
“We played well,” Park said. “We played an extremely good team, and we hung in there with a very good team. Their blocking was the best we’d seen all year.”
Duda, a libero who helps guide the offense, agreed.
“It was really hard to find the floor (with our shots),” she said. “And they didn’t make many errors or give us many free points, so that was difficult.”
In the third game Mineola understandably was a bit discouraged, and after trailing 7-2 to start it was just too big a hill to climb back from. Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake went on to win the Class A championship on Saturday.
Park was upset at the officiating in the match, and said she felt many calls were incorrect and went against her squad.
But she wouldn’t let that color the warm feelings this season provided, and what a trip to states meant. The family atmosphere the team created, with 70 friends, family and relatives coming to a dinner in Glens Falls Friday night, wasn’t something she’ll soon forget.
“It was so much fun to have such support from everyone, and how hard these girls competed every match,” Park said.
“It was hard to comprehend, that I’ll never play with all of these girls again,” Duda added. “But it was such a great experience.”