Greely's experience, poise too much for Falmouth in memorable volleyball final
GORHAM—It might have been the closest 3-0 match in memory.
Saturday's highly-anticipated inaugural Class A state championship between six-time reigning champion Greely and top-ranked upstart Falmouth brought a full house to the gymnasium at Gorham High School.
Those on hand got a treat on Halloween morning, even if the match didn't go four or five games, as expected.
When the dust settled, the Rangers had too much experience and made fewer mistakes at key times as they eked out 26-24 victories in the first two games before bringing the curtain down with a 25-17 triumph in the third and final game of the best season in Maine high school volleyball annals.
"It feels really good," said Greely senior Karlee Biskup, who was all over the place throughout the match. "I think it was the two best teams. I'm glad it was Falmouth. Our intensity was up all game. We didn't give up. We knew we wanted it and we knew what we had to do and we did it."
"It's become a tradition at Greely that you never know who will step up," added Rangers coach/dynasty builder Kelvin Hasch. "The seniors always seem to be able to pull it together and get it done."
The Greely program has been the flagbearer for dominance since it attained varsity status in 2002. The Rangers fell to Woodland in five hard-fought games that year in the state match, then didn't lose another until Sept. 6, 2007 (setting a state record with a 66-match win streak). Greely rolled to six straight championships and entered 2009 expecting to make it seven.
Falmouth, meanwhile, didn't even play a varsity schedule until 2007. After reaching the semifinals in 2008, the Yachtsmen felt they were ready to make the jump to championship contender, but they surprised everyone by winning their first 13 matches, including a breathtaking 3-1 (25-18, 13-25, 25-15, 25-18) home triumph over Greely on Oct. 5. Eleven days later, the teams met again in Cumberland and the Rangers earned a 3-2 (25-23, 25-27, 25-12, 24-26, 15-7) win to give both squads a 13-1 regular season mark.
Falmouth earned the top seed in Class A (the sport was split into two classes this season) and had no trouble eliminating No. 5 Biddeford 3-0 (25-17, 25-14, 25-21) in the semifinals. Greely, ranked second, ousted No. 6 Scarborough 3-0 (25-18, 25-15, 25-18) in its semifinal round match, setting the stage for the state final everyone wanted to see.
The only question was when and where it would be played. Originally, the match was scheduled for Saturday morning at Windham High School, but the Eagles were hosting a football game that afternoon and couldn't handle the overflow. The match was then scheduled for Thursday night at Windham, but the volleyball community rose up and protested what it felt was second-rate status. That and the fact that many spectators were planning to travel and see the match on its originally scheduled date, convinced the Maine Principals' Association to move it back to Saturday at Gorham.
Once it was time to play volleyball, it was clear why both teams were in the finals.
The first game will go down in lore.
The teams found themselves tied on 13 different occasions, the lead changed hands seven times and neither squad led by more than three points. Falmouth went up in the early going behind kills from seniors Kate Sparks and Alyssa Yeung, but the dominance of Greely senior standout Erin Cadigan at the net kept the Rangers close. Greely took its first lead at 11-10, the Yachtsmen went up 13-12, the Rangers then grabbed a 16-15 advantage, but Falmouth got up 17-16, forcing Hasch to call timeout. Greely then scored three straight points, inducing Yachtsmen coach Gary Powers to call time. A gorgeous save by Sparks helped Falmouth win the next point, then the Yachtsmen got the next to make it 19-19 and force another Rangers timeout. After the Yachtsmen took a 20-19 lead on senior Maggie Bruen's ace, then went up 21-19, Greely tied the game at 21-21. Falmouth took its final lead at 22-21, but the Rangers got the next three to get within a point of victory. Undaunted, the Yachtsmen tied it on a Sparks kill, but Greely went up 25-24, then, after a long rally, won the first game 26-24 on a kill from senior Michaela Campbell to seize the advantage.
"We wanted the first game since the first game sets the mood for the whole match," Cadigan said.
"We came out a little tight in the first set," Hasch said. "We squeaked through at the end. I wanted that first set bad."
"We tried to come out relaxed," Powers said. "I was hoping to get that first one. A few breaks went against us. We had some serving issues. You just can't make mistakes against that team. They have experience."
If dropping the first game wasn't bad enough for Falmouth, the second game would end in even more dispiriting fashion.
This time, the Yachtsmen raced to an early 6-2 lead before Greely responded. The teams would be tied six times and the lead changed hands three times. The Rangers were down 9-7, but erupted for seven straight points (behind a pair of Cadigan kills) to lead 14-9. After a timeout, Falmouth scored seven straight, highlighted by an ace from Bruen and kills from junior Alana Becker and Yeung. When the Yachtsmen made it 24-21 on another Yeung kill, they appeared primed to even the match, but a Cadigan kill was followed by another Greely point, making it 24-23 and forcing a Falmouth timeout. Cadigan then scored another kill to tie it and after the Rangers took a 25-24 lead, Cadigan ended it with a kill that deflected off a Yachtsmen defender out of bounds.
"The second set, we were a little flat," Hasch said. "I was trying to find the right people to step it up. With so many seniors, you have to keep fishing. We bore down and stayed focused in the second set and stole that one."
"The second game was close," said Powers. "It just wasn't there."
Acting like they champion they are, the Rangers came out looking to quickly extinguish any Falmouth hopes in the third game. Greely shot to a 4-1 lead, extended it to 9-4 and eventually 17-6. The Yachtsmen got up off the deck and got back to within 18-15 and 19-16 (on a Sparks kill), but the Rangers got to the brink with a 5-0 run, then, after a Sparks kill, finished it off on a Campbell kill (her 20th), winning 25-17 to take the match 3-0 and extend its reign to seven seasons.
"It's definitely more joy than anything," said Biskup (four kills, 39 assists). "There's a lot of pressure on us, but we have a lot of fun. I think that's what does it for us. It was good for us to lose the (first regular season match). We were much more intense the second time and this time."
"It was a really good match," added Cadigan (21 kills). "It feels so good. It was really exciting. It's great that we got to play Falmouth and it's great to win. It's hard every time. We worked hard and we came together as a team. There's a lot of pressure. We came to play, we wanted it and we got it."
Hasch had plenty of praise to distribute.
"Erin and Karlee and Michaela had a dynamite game today," he said. "I didn't think it would be easy. In the third set, I told them in the huddle before they went out that we had the nail started, let's drive it home. (Falmouth) started smelling it, but once we got refocused, we finished the job. I'd say MDI had a good team a few years back, but I think Falmouth is right up there as one of the top teams we faced."
Ultimately, the biggest inspiration for the Rangers was assistant coach Bruce Churchill, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. Churchill (the father of Greely senior Leah) has played as big a role as anyone in creating this powerhouse and although he is now confined to a wheelchair, stood and hugged each player during the postgame medal ceremony.
"We really wanted this one for Bruce," said an emotional Hasch.
Falmouth finished 14-2 and as the runner-up, but the Yachtsmen were winners in every sense of the word in 2009.
"It's a bummer, but it's fantastic that we were able to get this far," said Yeung. "We realized they've played twice as long, if not even longer than us. I'm really proud of the team. It was really hard for us to get back after that second game. Volleyball is such a mental game. Getting down, it's hard to get the whole team back up, but we have a lot to be proud of."
"It's been amazing to get this far, this soon," Powers added. "It was a great group to work with. We have a good core coming back next year. They've worked hard. We're already looking forward to next year. I have kids who can step into those spots."
Does No. 8 await?
Greely (15-1) is about to undergo arguably the biggest graduation hit the program has taken. With that said, don't expect the Rangers to fall off the map. They're perennial champions for a reason and figure to once again find a way in 2010.
"We're losing a lot of talent, but we always we seem to find talent hiding in the hallways," Hasch said. "I think we'll do it again. We don't have a setter. We have two on JV. It's been my dream to have a 6-foot setter. I think there's one walking the hallways."
If so, she can't help but notice all the hardware in the trophy case. The Greely Rangers are the volleyball champions of Maine once again, but did they ever get a fight from those inspirational and plucky Yachtsmen.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org