Published November 17. 2012 4:00AM
The Ledyard High School gym is covered with blue and gold banners representing all the state championships won by wrestling, football, and the school's other programs.
Shirley Karkow used those championship banners to illustrate a point when she took over the Colonels' volleyball team four years ago.
"I wanted them to think that's just not for football," Karkow said. "That can happen for volleyball, too. That does happen in other programs when you do well and when you care about this game.
"Those are programs. That's just not one win, one good year. These are programs, and that it takes a while."
Four years later, Ledyard is playing for its first state volleyball championship.
The third-ranked Colonels meet fellow newbie Woodland of Beacon Falls in today's Class M state final at East Haven High School (1 p.m.).
"I remember looking at those banners," senior Kylie Fustini said. "We don't have a state championship for volleyball, and seeing that we haven't won an ECC championship, looking at that, I wanted to win an ECC title."
The Colonels (17-5) haven't gotten exactly what Fustini wanted, but she and her teammates have a chance at something better.
"This a team that's looking for that goal," Fustini said.
Karkow had previously built Montville into a winning program, coaching it to a surprising 2003 ECC championship.
Ledyard had gone through some lean years when she arrived in 2009, and she set out to change the culture.
"It was hard at first," Karkow said. "I knew it was hard (for them) because its so different. I had these expectations, and I understood that it's different. But this is a new program, and we wanted to go in another direction."
It took two losing seasons before Ledyard broke out last year.
It shared the Medium Division title with Plainfield, its first league title of any kind since 2001. It also qualified for states for the first time since 2003.
The Colonels improved even more this season. They shared the Medium Division title with Plainfield again and earned one of the top seeds in Class M.
Karkow credited the help she's received from first-year assistant Rich Duwelius, a member of the 1984 U.S. gold-medal winning Olympic team. She's also used former Coast Guard coach and good friend Patty Giannattasio.
"We had all the physical tools," Karkow said. "We had the height. We had the the athletes. We had kids who are going outside (the program) and doing things to help themselves get better beyond just their time here."
"From the beginning (of the season), I thought if everyone came every day and worked hard that it could be possible," Fustini said. "And yet I'm still a little surprised and shocked because of the 'wow' factor."