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Big Hopes for Little Red

by Cecilia Morales and Alexa Salvato

As practice ends, students, parents and siblings fill the bleachers to watch Ithaca High School’s varsity volleyball team take Vestal High School at 7 p.m. Sept. 15 in the Bliss Gym. The 15 girls on the court laughed as they practiced setting and bumping, tossing the balls back and forth in preparation for their fourth game of the season. They have been there for hours already, watching the junior varsity girls take Vestal before them, a game that Ithaca’s Little Red lost narrowly. But their enthusiasm didn’t wane.

Co-captains and Ithaca seniors Sophie Partington and Agnes Sydenstricker survey their teammates to make sure everyone is getting involved in practice. Both girls have played volleyball since seventh grade, and in their final year playing for Ithaca, their priority is absolute focus on the court.

“Personally, I want to make sure that I keep putting in 100 percent throughout the whole season, even though it’s kind of a long season,” Partington says. “It’s hard to do that when you’re in practice and all you can think about is all the work you have to do when you get home, so you try not to tire yourself out too much, but I want to make sure I’m putting in a lot of effort every time that I’m playing.”

Co-captain Sophie Partington serves the ball in the third set. / Photo by Cecilia Morales

Sydenstricker agrees, but also emphasized her role as a captain. “I think for me personally, as a captain, [I have to show] leadership to the other younger players and … not get distracted by all the work I have and focus on what I have to do on the court during that time.”

Both players say they have high hopes for their game against Vestal, although they admit it will be a challenge.  

“It’s a pretty hard team,” Sydenstricker says. “They’re very good, throughout many years. But I think this year we have one of the strongest teams we’ve had in awhile, and I feel pretty confident that we have the capability of winning and hopefully we can do that tonight.”

Head coach Jill Kautz, a social studies teacher at the high school, and is an avid volleyball player herself. After three years of coaching junior varsity, she is coaching her first varsity team at Ithaca High School. Kautz expresses passion and excitement when talking about her role as coach and her team’s goals for the coming season.

“We want to have noticeable improvement every week, so whether or not we’re winning, we can see improvement,” she says. “And our biggest goal for the season is to win sectionals. And they can definitely do it, but it takes that every week getting better.”

Head coach Jill Kautz joins the team for a mid-game huddle. / Photo by Cecilia Morales
Head coach Jill Kautz joins the team for a mid-game huddle. / Photo by Cecilia Morales


When the varsity game begins, there is an immediate contrast with the junior varsity game played on the court an hour before. The action is so much tighter and faster. The players clump together, communicating clearly as they claim who will take the next set or bump. If the ball gets close to the ground, the players quickly squat or slide to save it. The spikes are significantly louder and harder than in the game before.

This is the reason Demi Nestopoulos, a junior playing her first varsity season, says she’s excited to be on varsity this year.

“The competition is a lot different [at the varsity level],” she said. “There are a lot harder hits and the passes need to be so much better, just the game itself is so different from JV. It’s a whole new step for me.”

“It’s a way faster pace,” Partington agrees.

Sydney Trumble, Elena Fine and Sydenstricker thrive as they take turns serving the ball, garnering many cheers from the crowd. Partington and Myah Frostclapp are two other players who stay on for almost the entirety of the game, seldom getting subbed out, Frostclapp primarily as a spiker and Partington as a setter.

Halfway through the game, each team has a set, with Vestal winning the first by 7 points and Ithaca winning the second by a substantial 11 points. At the end of the game, after two more close sets, Vestal takes the win by winning three of the four total sets. But the players, committed to their improvement, do not appear deterred. They huddle in a giggling group hug, patting each other on the back, despite some clear faces of disappointment. According to these players, that’s because this team centers on a culture of friendship and mutual support.

With only six players on the court, the others stand by watching and cheering for their team. / Photo by Cecilia Morales
With only six players on the court, the others stand by watching and cheering for their team. / Photo by Cecilia Morales


“Pretty much all of my super close friends play volleyball, so that’s how I became friends with these people,” Partington says. She adds this can minimize accountability, it also increases honesty between players.

For Nestopoulos, however, friendships with her teammates are as important, if not more so, than a successful season.

“For this year, I hope that we win a lot of games obviously,” she says with a smile. “But I also think a goal for all of us would be to stay in touch even after this season’s over.”

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