Vanessa Castillo helped the Lee volleyball team to an unbeaten regular season
Vanessa Castillo helped the Lee volleyball team to an unbeaten regular season (Eagle file)

LEE -- Katie Morin doesn't even pause when describing what 2012 has felt like for the Lee volleyball team.

"Unbelievable," the junior said. "It's so great. I knew we would be good. I just never expected to go undefeated."

Sure, expectations were high this year for the Wildcats (20-1), who have lost just 43 times in eight years as a varsity program under coach John Warner. Lee was returning a strong core -- including Morin -- but a perfect regular season is something you rarely see coming. Warner thought his team might lost a match here or there, maybe finish 16-3. Instead, some crafty coaching and gutsy play led to a 19-0 mark in the regular season.

"We have no weaknesses on the court, but no dominant hitters, either," Warner said. "Our defense is strong and we have enough offensive punch. We can withstand teams."

The Wildcats did that well enough to earn their first county title since 2009 and were on the verge of a return to the Western Massachusetts Division III final before Thursday's five-set semifinal loss at Mahar. Lauren Richardson was on that 2009 team as a freshman, but she said this year's county title was even more special to her.

"It felt so great," Richardson said. "I was a part of the team in 2009 but I wasn't really the one person. It feels great now, as a senior, that my hard work and dedication and everyone else's has paid off."

Warner has now won four county titles in eight years and the coach said he hates to lose. He said losing to a better team is sometimes hard to avoid but losing because of a lack of effort or poor preparation "infuriates him."

Still, Warner said sometimes a loss can be instructive. A tough weekend at the Holyoke tournament where Warner was trying out different lineups provided those lessons.

"It was kind of humbling," he said. "They didn't like the taste of losing."

That has helped Lee gut out tough matches when the Wildcats needed to. Warner's group is strong all over the court, from Richardson's intelligence at setter to Vanessa Castillo's athleticism as a defender. Morin has played with Richardson since the pair was in middle school, bringing a familiarity that breeds success.

Add the nasty serve of Sam Farina, the dependability of Alyssa Kelly and the rising strength of freshman Courtney Picard and it all came together this year.

"Winning feels so good that I don't want it to end," said Jessica Zerbato. "I was kind of skeptical but at the same time I knew we had some strengths and some things we still needed to work on. But we pulled it all out."

To reach Christopher James:
cjames@berkshireeagle.com,
(413) 496-6252.
On Twitter: @BECJ2K.