ARDSLEY — For coaches and players, every loss hurts; some more than others, but they all hurt on some varying degree. For Ardsley, losing in last year’s Section 1 Class B championship as an undefeated No. 1 seed to sorely under-ranked No. 10 Hen Hud was agonizing.
We can’t rewrite history and we can’t change time. As entertaining as the thought of going back in time and getting to do things over is, it’s not realistic. Many of us never get a shot at redemption, and if we do, it rarely holds any of the clout the previous occasion did.
Ardsley (19-0) got another shot against Hen Hud on Thursday. It wasn’t for the section championship, and it was not the same Sailors team that had beaten it a year ago. The Panthers, who returned all but one player from the 2013 roster, prevailed in four games at home, 25-19, 22-25, 25-21, 25-17, in the Class B semifinal.
Although history does not repeat itself, it does sometimes bare some striking resemblances.
The first time Panthers coach Dave Ponterio was ever scheduled to play Hen Hud was on Sept. 11, 2001. “We obviously didn’t play that match,” he said. When the match was rescheduled, Hen Hud won.
And Hen Hud kept on winning against Ardsley for the next 13 years.
This year’s semifinal was originally slated for Wednesday, but due to a threatening phone call in the Hendrick Hudson school district, the school was on lockdown for the second time in as many days. The match was called approximately 15 minutes before Wednesday’s scheduled start time.
Ponterio, who said he had been up since 4:30 a.m. that day, had to wait for his shot at redemption, as did his team.
Ardsley’s team was significantly stronger this year and Hen Hud graduated key pieces from its championship squad last year; this was Ardsley’s match to lose, and most of the section knew it.
Droves of “Bleacher Creatures,” the student fan section of Hen Hud, flooded the Ardsley bleachers on one side, while a mass of Ardsley parents — both past and present — stocked the opposing side.
Ardsley took the first the first game from the Sailors, but a late surge by Hen Hud sent the message that coach Diane Swertfager’s girls would be sticking around. In the second game, Hen Hud surged out to a 15-6 lead. Similar to what the Sailors had did in the previous game, the Panthers made a late push, but were unable to undo the damage of the early deficit.
Ardsley settled into a groove in the final two games, nearing the long-awaited victory with each point. Hen Hud hung around for about half of the eventual final game, trailing 14-10 before calling its first timeout. Coming out of the break, Ardsley hit the gas.
The Panthers went on a 7-4 run, putting the match all but out of hand and forcing Hen Hud to burn its final timeout of the game. Panthers junior Nicolina Chenard (pictured right), whose right knee was bandaged up from an injury she sustained against John Jay during the regular season, had her serve working all day — hard, top-spinning and often, difficult to return.
Stepping up in the final points of Game 4, Chenard was oozing adrenaline. The powerful hitter whacked her serve over the net… over the Hen Hud defense… over the foul line… and off the Ardsley wall, inches above the blue padding, which stands about six feet high.
Had there been no wall, the ball probably would’ve landed in Montrose.
Chenard, laughing at the moment, paused on the court in disbelief, with perhaps a dash of embarrassment. The awkwardness subsided minutes later, when Ardsley closed out the match and advanced to its second consecutive Class B final.
The Panthers were elated, as they should’ve been.
The Panthers were proud, as they should’ve been.
And they wanted to celebrate the win.
“What are you celebrating? We didn’t win anything,” Ponterio cracked from the center of the court to his girls, lightheartedly, with an undertone of sincerity.
It was true. Yes, Ardsley had won a match, but it had not won any championships on Thursday. The final, scheduled for Saturday at Croton-Harmon against No. 3 Nanuet at 10 a.m., still needed to be played.
But everyone — and apparently the Ardsley players, too — suspected that this was the real big match. “That’s the real championship match, in my opinion,” said one coach. Fans and coaches alike had predicted Ardsley and Hen Hud to meet in the final again, but a difficult Sailors schedule landed them the 5-seed, placing them on the same side of the bracket as the Panthers.
Now that it is past Hen Hud — winner of section titles in 12 of the previous 14 season — many are expecting Ardsley to handily win its first section title since 2007. But, as Ponterio pointed out, the team has not won anything yet.
Ponterio did his best to hold back emotion in the immediate aftermath of the win, but when the gymnasium had cleared, he took in the moment, looking at the scoreboard still showing the final game score.
“I wanted this one for so long,” said Ponterio, who has been at the helm of the Panthers for more than two decades. The physical toll this match — and Hen Hud — has taken on him over the years was evident on Thursday; Ponterio, clearly exhausted from back-to-back days of early mornings and high stress, barely stood for most of the match.
Walking around the gym, members of other Ardsley sports programs congratulated him as they saw him in their peripheral vision to the locker room. “Congrats, coach,” before continuing, “and good luck in the next.”
Ponterio, an already soft-spoken man, was reserved in talking about his history with Hen Hud and at Ardsley. While the lights of the gym provided a slight glare off of his glasses, you could still see that Ponterio was glassy-eyed, although there were no tears.
He rooted voice cracked at times, but never rose beyond a baritone.
If there was anyone at Ardsley who wanted this win more than Ponterio or the team, it was Karl Kelemen.
The father of former Panther, Jenny, Kelemen has now become more traditionally recognized for the shirt he donned at last year’s section final: “Admission… $6.00. Volleyball sneakers… $60.00. Beating Hen Hud… Priceless.”
After being snapped by Journal News photographer Carucha L. Meuse at the match, Kelemen likely still had remnants of egg on his face entering Wednesday. I decided to attend that match for two reasons: (1) Obviously to see the match; (2) To see if Kelemen would be there.
I looked through the bleachers, but did not initially see him. I did find Rick Misrok, father of former Ardsley libero Arielle Misrok, as well as Eastchester coach Kathy DePippo. I sat down with Misrok during the second game and enjoyed the remainder of the match.
While the celebrations took place on the court, I was tapped on the shoulder.
“I believe you’re looking for this?”
It was Kelemen, sporting the white t-shirt underneath his checkered red plaid shirt and green jacket, beaming with a smile. While I was entertained to see that he was in attendance and wearing the shirt, the real surprise came when he showed me the back of it.
It didn’t make sense to me in the moment, thinking, “The final was in 2013? What is he talking about?” That’s when he told me the story of how the shirt came to be.
When Ardsley made the section final in 2005 against Hen Hud, it was a similar situation to Wednesday — one team (Hen Hud) entered as the overwhelming favorite, while the other (Ardsley) was projected by many to lose. Granted, 2014 Hen Hud had a much better shot than 2005 Ardsley did, as Kelemen described, but the two matches still had the same underlying feel.
Kelemen said that for his daughter and Ardsley, beating Hen Hud that year would have been “priceless,” since they had a “one in a million” chance of beating the Sailors. Hen Hud won the match, easily.
The next season, Ardsley topped Lourdes for the Class B title, while Hen Hud —which had been bumped up to Class A — went a perfect 23-0 en route to its first of three consecutive state championships.
Kelemen said that his daughter, who attended Duke University, worked with the basketball team when it won the national championship in 2010. He showed pictures of Jenny holding the championship trophy and said that when he told her, “This has to be the best moment of your life?” she scoffed him, citing the 2006 section win as her top moment.
We don’t know how far Ardsley can go if it gets past Nanuet on Saturday. A powerful, prolific offense, the Panthers should be able to make it to the state semifinals at the Glens Falls Civic Center, but it must first make it out of Croton-Harmon.
Ponterio has led teams to the state semifinals before, but one could argue that this time — right now — is the best Panthers volleyball team that has ever been assembled at the school, regardless of whether or not it makes it to Glens Falls or even wins a state title.
Ponterio has won section titles before and he’s won more than 300 matches with the Panthers, but something about this one will stand out from the rest. Ardsley finishing off its undefeated season against Section 1 opponents on Saturday will likely be incredible for Ponterio. If it can make it out of the state regionals, even better; if it can make the state final, tremendous; winning a state title, exhilarating; but Wednesday’s win will forever be, priceless.