Senators hope volleyball win is good omen

Kim Czepukaitis, Anna Canalichio and Olivia Czepukaitis all return for Dover High’s volleyball team this fall. Delaware State News file photos

DOVER — Dover High’s volleyball players didn’t know what to expect when they first took the court on Tuesday night.
The Senators had a new head coach in Eric Riehl.

They’d also lost four senior starters from last year’s squad.

“In the beginning, all of us, we were really nervous,” said junior Kim Czepukaitis. “I think there was a lot of hesitancy.”

Those jitters showed as Caravel took the opening set, 25-23. But, by the time the match ended, Dover had reeled off three straight set victories to win the season-opening match, 3-1.

That 23-25, 25-23, 25-14, 25-15 victory was a pretty big deal to the Senators considering they’d lost to the Buccaneers twice last fall, including in the DIAA state tournament.

“The energy just completely changed for us,” said Czepukaitis. “The intensity definitely picked up in the second or third set. … That’s when we actually started playing aggressively like we should.”

“It was amazing,” said junior setter Olivia Anyanwu. “We were screaming and happy. It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we just won. It’s amazing.’ ”

Considering it was the first time that Dover beat Caravel in at least five all-time meetings, the Senators are hoping that the victory is a sign of things to come for the rest of the season.

After going a combined 22-10 with back-to-back state tourney appearances over the last two seasons. Dover was already in the midst of its most successful stretch in a while.

At the same time, the four graduated seniors and former coach Alaina Schleich were a big part of that success.

Junior setter Victoria Anyanwu (5) said beating Caravel on Tuesday was a big step for the Senators.

An assistant under Schleich last year, Riehl had also coached in Holy Cross’ rec league along with about a decade of travel-ball coaching experience. He felt like the program was in good shape when he was hired over the summer.

“We’ve got a good setup for the next couple years,” said the 42-year-old Riehl, who is a former semi-pro beach player. “These girls are hyped up. We’ve got a good group.

“A coach dreams of that perfect mix of speed and power. We’ve got it and I’ll take it.”

It didn’t hurt that the Senators picked up a pair of transfers in junior Kendra Williams (Caesar Rodney) and sophomore Bella Newton (Smyrna).

Williams said she actually transferred to Dover because of its ROTC program and that volleyball was just a bonus. She said it’s been fun to see how quickly this group has gelled together.

“It’s definitely new, the environment is different,” said Williams, a 5-foot-7 middle blocker. “But it’s pretty inclusive. Everybody is all about family and ‘team together.’ Everybody has the same goals so it’s very easy to mesh together.

“It happened very quickly. Everybody definitely came together very easily. There were no issues.”

Maybe it helps that, of the 20 total players in the program right now, there are three sets of twins. Four of Dover’s varsity players were also with Riehl in the Coastal travel-ball program last year before he became the Senators’ coach.

Riehl liked the fact so many players seemed to work hard in the off-season even when they weren’t sure there was going to be fall season.

“It was definitely very iffy,” said Anyanwu. “No one knew really. We worked like we knew there was going to be a season.

“I was so excited — especially with the new players that came in. I knew this was ‘the year.’”

The Senators, who jump into their Henlopen North schedule today with a 4 p.m. match at Sussex Tech, still like to think of themselves as underdogs. They know they have a lot to prove in some people’s eyes.

But it’s a role they don’t mind embracing for now.

“I know teams aren’t expecting us to be like this,” said Czepukaitis, a 6-foot middle blocker. “That makes me want to push myself harder and prove that Dover is a team to beat this year.”

“It definitely was a big deal,” Williams said about opening with a win over Caravel. “I know what they went through last year. Everyone is like, ‘OK, we can improve. We can work on what we needed to work on since last year and we can all just get there together’”