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Greely holds off Scarborough to return to volleyball pinnacle

Sports

Greely holds off Scarborough to return to volleyball pinnacle

WINDHAM—The Greely volleyball team is back on top.

 But it wasn't easy getting there.

Saturday evening at Windham High School, the indisputable two best teams in Class A squared off in the state final and upstart Scarborough gave the Rangers everything they could handle.

After splitting the first two games, Greely finally managed to somewhat neutralize Red Storm senior standout Brittany Bona and with games three and four on the line, the Rangers did what they do like no one else, dig deep for that special intangible winning formula and they went on to their eighth state title in nine years, 3-1 (25-19, 19-25, 25-21, 25-21).

Greely finished with a perfect 16-0 record and ended Scarborough's best campaign to date at 14-3.

"We're all so excited," said Rangers senior standout and spirited emotional leader Maggie Bradley. "It's amazing. It's exactly what we wanted all season. Awesome is the best descriptor. We really, really wanted this."

On a mission

Since becoming a varsity program in 2002, Greely has set the standard in the state of Maine. The Rangers lost to Woodland in five games in the state match that year, but bounced back to win seven successive titles, dropping only two matches in that span in the process and setting a new state record with a 66-match win streak.

In 2010, however, Greely faced adversity for the first time, falling to eventual champion Biddeford in the semifinals to cap a 10-6 season.

The returning Rangers rededicated themselves to making sure that was an aberration. Their desire to return to championship form was made even more acute by their fervent wish to win another title for longtime assistant coach Bruce Churchill, who has Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

Greely was superb during the regular season, winning all 14 matches, all in four games or less (10 in three straight games), capped by a 3-0 triumph at rival Falmouth. The Rangers earned the top seed for the Class A tournament and had a bye into the semifinals, where they beat the  fifth-ranked Yachtsmen again in three games.

Scarborough took the next step this autumn. After qualifying for the postseason six years running, but never advancing past the semifinals, the Red Storm (losers to Falmouth in the quarterfinals in 2010) won 12 of 14 regular season matches and wound up third in Class A. After sweeping three games from Ellsworth in the quarterfinals, Scarborough eliminated No. 7 Gorham, 3-0, to set up Saturday's showdown.

Entering the state final, the Rangers and Red Storm had 17 prior encounters with Greely winning every time. That included a pair of 3-1 decisions this fall, 25-20, 28-26, 13-25, 25-19, at Scarborough Sept. 15, and 25-20, 25-16, 23-25, 25-20 at home Sept. 30.

The teams' lone prior playoff meeting resulted in a 3-0 (25-18, 25-15, 25-18) Rangers' victory in the 2009 semifinals.

This state final would follow a similar script as the Red Storm was in position to emerge triumphant, but in the end, Greely was the team dancing in celebration.

Both squads were nervous in the early going, committing unforced errors and a 5-0 Rangers' run (behind a pair of aces from senior Emily Sampson) forced Scarborough second-year coach Jon Roberts to call timeout, but it didn't help. Greely made it 12-4 after a Bradley kill before the Red Storm crawled back to 14-9 on an ace from senior Meghan McAlary. Greely went up 19-13 behind a kill from Sampson and the closest Scarborough got the rest of the game was 21-18 and the Rangers closed out their 25-19 first game win when after a Red Storm serve went awry.

Bradley had four kills in that game, but Bona made her presence felt in the second game as Scarborough made things very interesting.

Down 4-1, a Bona kill was followed by a kill from junior Meghan Lynch to get things going. The Red Storm pulled even at 6-6 after a kill from senior Rachel Webber. An ace from Bona put Scarborough on top, but Greely got the next two points, punctuated by an ace from Bradley. The Rangers had their last lead, 9-8, but a kill by sophomore Mary Cleary and an ace from senior Amber Bowen put the Red Storm up, 10-9. After a Bradley kill tied the score, Scarborough went ahead to stay as Webber sandwiched two aces around a Bona kill to make it 14-10, forcing Rangers coach Kelvin Hasch to call timeout.

It worked momentarily (in fact, every time Hasch called timeout Saturday night, Greely won the next point) as the Rangers got back to 14-12, but two Bona kills and two aces from McAlary pushed the lead to 19-12 before Hasch had to call timeout again. Greely won the first point out of the break, but Bona followed with a kill to make it 20-13. After the Rangers drew within 20-15, a Cleary kill made it 22-15. Never giving in, Greely rattled off four straight points, punctuated by a kill by senior Ellie Weickert, but after Roberts called timeout, Bona delivered a kill, the Red Storm scored one more point and a block by Cleary brought the curtain down on a 25-19 victory.

Bona had six kills and an ace in the game, but the Rangers would change their approach in game three and eventually managed to limit her effectiveness.

Bona did have three early kills to give Scarborough a 6-5 lead, but Sampson tied the score with a kill. The Red Storm answered with four straight points as Bowen had a pair of aces and Webber a kill. After a timeout, Greely rattled off four in a row, highlighted by a Weickert block and a Bradley kill to tie the score, 10-10.

"We were lollipopping shots over," Hasch said. "In the timeout, I told the kids to hit the ball or they'd sit on the bench. The kids, when I tell them to focus, they know they have to focus. It seems to work well with them. When they need to make a great play, they make it happen. We practice (close) games all the time."

After a Bona kill put Scarborough back on top, the Rangers tied things up then got a kill from Weickert for 13-11 advantage, forcing Roberts to call timeout.

It didn't turn the tide as Weickert had a block and Bradley a kill for a 15-11 lead, culminating a 9-1 run. The Red Storm got within one at 16-15 after a Cleary kill, but a Weickert block made it 17-15. Scarborough twice would draw within two points, 18-16 and 19-17, the latter after another Cleary kill, but a Bradley kill pushed the lead back to 21-17. After a Red Storm timeout, Bona made an improbable save on the sideline that led to a point, but Scarborough couldn't ride the momentum and successive kills from Bradley put the Red Storm on the brink of defeat at 24-19. Scarborough did get back to 24-21, but a block by Weickert ended the game and gave Greely a 25-21 victory.

"They put up a really good fight, but we have really good teamwork," Weickert said. "We came into it thinking (Brittany would) be hitting it cross a lot, but she ended up hitting it line so we moved over."

"When we got down, we were definitely nervous, but we had to recognize the fact we weren't playing to our full ability," Bradley said. "Everyone got energized and we went from flat feet to running around and getting tough balls. Coach just said we couldn't let (Brittany) keep doing that to us and that we're the best blockers in the entire state. We practiced blocking Brittany and the blockers did what they had to do and it worked out in the end."

"Our plan was not to serve to Brittany and keep the ball away from her," Hasch added. "Scarborough did a great job passing to the setter so she could get it in Brittany's corner. They played a great game. We tried to neutralize them as much as possible. I tried to get Maggie into the game more. Her passing wasn't the best in a couple sets, but she started to make the passes. Once we got the passing out of her, the hitting came."

Scarborough was suddenly on the ropes. Roberts felt it was because senior setter Emily Robbins wasn't allowed to play her game.

"We got out of our system," Roberts said. "One of the best setters in the entire state all of the sudden had to play by different rules. We're used to running a different offense and having everything go through my setter. She takes care of the ball really well. That's the most she's ever been called for her hands. It's like a strike zone in baseball. You have to play by the rules. It changed how we played. I think that impacted it a little bit. We tried to play safe instead of attacking and being aggressive. No excuses. They were the better team tonight, but it definitely made it harder for us. "

Game four would produce more agony for the Red Storm.

Back-to-back aces from Bona gave Scarborough a 6-5 lead, but a kill by Greely sophomore Jordynne Copp tied the score. After the Rangers went on top, 7-6, a kill by Cleary tied the score and spearheaded a 5-0 Red Storm run, which was capped by another Cleary kill for an 11-7 lead, forcing Hasch to call timeout again. After Greely got back to 11-10, Roberts took timeout and Scarborough scored four straight points to make it 15-10. When the Red Storm took a 17-11 lead, it looked like the Rangers might be pushed to the brink.

Instead, Greely showed its championship heart and finished strong.

A kill from Bradley (who else?) got the rally started. Three Bradley aces in four points tied the game and a Bradley kill capped the 7-0 run and gave the Rangers an 18-17 lead. Bona tied the score with a kill and a McAlary ace gave Scarborough its last lead, 19-18. Greely got the next two points and Roberts called timeout. The Red Storm pulled even, but Sampson's kill put the Rangers on top to stay. Sampson had a kill on the next point and after back-to-back mis-hits by Scarborough, Greely had a 24-20 lead. The Red Storm stayed alive by winning the next point, but the match came to an end when Scarborough hit the ball into the net and the Rangers were champions once more.

"We love each other so much and we had the extra motivation to do it for 'Church,'" Weickert said. "It's been a great year This is my first state championship and I've never felt a better feeling. During the offseason, I think almost every person on the team played JO and we all improved so much. We all just meshed so well this year."

"Everyone just totally trusts each other," Bradley said. "Even when it gets tough and it gets to the point where you might lose a game, you don't stop playing. We're cohesive. Our key is we work together. The setters keep setting, the blockers keep blocking and no one does anything out of the ordinary. By staying normal, you can push through it. We were hoping we wouldn't be forced to settle for anything but a championship. It's a perfect ending to a perfect season."

"It's awesome to see volleyball come up to this level," Hasch added. "I'm lucky I had a great team this year. Every player could hit. The difference in the match, I think, was bringing a couple fresh people off the bench and putting the back row into the front row. I think that was the difference. It seemed to work.

"This one's really sweet. We wanted it really bad for Bruce. (The girls) came in from day one setting the goal high. I was thinking maybe it shouldn't be so high, but they wanted that goal and they achieved it. I'm so excited there's finally a Gold Ball (trophy). When I saw that, I knew we had to win it. No one else should take it home."

Bradley finished with an unofficial tally of 17 kills and four aces.

"(Maggie) brings a lot to the court as a captain," said Hasch. "She talked to the team before-hand and told them how badly she wanted it. That's important."

Sampson had seven kills and two aces and Weickert three blocks and two kills.

For Scarborough, Bona finished with 14 kills, eight digs and four aces. Robbins had 20 assists, McAlary four aces, Bowen three aces and Cleary seven kills.

Ultimately, the Red Storm fell just short.

"We haven't given up in any match all year and that's why I'm most proud of my girls," Roberts said. "They never give up. I thought there was a chance for us there, but (Greely) came back and started attacking. They're a great team. Hats off to them. They had a great year. Their program is solid and has been here before. Their girls feed off the older girls who have been through the program. They do have something special where they can pull it out at the end.

The Red Storm set a program highwater mark with 14 victories.

"We accomplished a lot," Roberts said. "We had six seniors. This is my second year. They had to change their whole system of playing and buy into going in a different direction. I'm proud of what they accomplished. We wanted a chance to come out and compete against the best team and we got that."

Same time next year?

Scarborough loses some key contributors, with Bona leading the way, but Roberts has this program established as one that should contend every fall. After this autumn's close call, the Red Storm will be hungry to make another title run in 2012.

"We're always trying to build, but it's going to be hard because we're losing a lot," Roberts said.

As for Greely, now that it's restored order, a run at title number nine next fall will be next on the to-do list.

That means that in 2012, like for most of the past decade, the road to the championship will go through the Rangers.

"I think we'll be in the thick of it again next year," said Hasch.

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

Photo: contributed photo

Greely senior Emily Sampson prepares a serve during's Saturday's state match.

Photo: contributed photo

Greely sophomore Jordynne Copp (10) and senior Emily Sampson rule the net during the championship match.