Falmouth senior Alaina Birkel beams during the Yachtsmen’s 3-0 win over Gorham Thursday night.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.
FALMOUTH—After losing several key players to graduation, Falmouth’s volleyball team entered the 2016 with many question marks.
Luckily for the Yachtsmen, they have a diverse, unselfish roster full of players willing to play anywhere and do anything to win.
And as a result, the wins keep coming.
Thursday night, Falmouth hosted Gorham in a battle of teams who were undefeated in the early going and while the Yachtsmen were pushed, they made the key plays and continued to establish themselves, again, as one of the state’s elite squads.
The Rams took a 9-4 lead in the first set, but Falmouth rallied behind the serving and passing of senior Alaina Birkel to prevail, 25-18.
Falmouth built a 21-11 lead in the second game, but Gorham rallied and got as close at five points before a kill from promising junior Alston Armstrong closed out a 25-19 victory.
The Yachtsmen then appeared primed to coast to an easy win in the third set, going on top, 9-1, but the Rams roared back and drew within a point before Falmouth, thanks in large part to the passing and serving of Birkel, finally put the finishing touches on its 25-16 victory, giving it the match by a 3-0 score.
The Yachtsmen improved to 3-0, now resides in the top spot of the Class A Heal Points standings and dropped Gorham to 2-1 in the process.
“We had to find a lineup that worked,” Birkel said. “We found our starting lineup right before our first game and we’ve worked with that ever since.”
Last fall, for the second year in a row, Falmouth failed to hold a 2-0 lead in the playoffs and suffered an agonizing setback (rival Greely rallied to beat the Yachtsmen in the semifinals in five sets).
This season, despite its roster turnover, Falmouth has its eye on the prize and intends to finish the job and the Yachtsmen impressed in the early going with 3-0 wins over visiting Cape Elizabeth (25-23, 25-13, 25-18) and host Cheverus (25-14, 25-18, 25-12).
Gorham went just 6-8 a year ago and lost to Windham in the Class A preliminary round, but has started fast this fall, downing host Windham (3-0) and visiting Thornton Academy (3-1).
Last season, Falmouth beat the host Rams, 3-1 (25-27, 25-21, 25-22, 25-22), in a close match.
Thursday, Gorham looked to beat the Yachtsmen for the first time since Aug. 31, 2012 (3-2, in Gorham), but instead, Falmouth made it five straight victories in the series.
The serving of senior Diana Kolb helped the Rams open up a quick 5-2 lead in the first game and Gorham eventually led by a 9-4 margin before the Yachtsmen came to life. A kill from senior Victoria Burton started the rally and a pair of aces from junior Lydia Abbott, followed by a kill from junior Alison Noyes, cut the deficit to one. After pulling even at 11-11, Falmouth went on top to stay as senior Amanda Watson produced an ace, Armstrong had a kill and Watson served up another ace to make it 14-11. The Rams were still close at 16-13, but a service fault opened the door for the hosts and senior Madi Tait served up three straight points, capped by a couple aces, to make it 20-13. Gorham crept back to 20-16, but after winning a long point, the Yachtsmen stretched their lead to 24-17 on an Abbott ace and after the Rams got a point back, a kill from Noyes brought the curtain down on a 25-18 first game triumph.
Birkel had five assists and three service points, while Abbott added five service points, including three aces, and Burton produced three kills.
Gorham got the first two points of the second set and led 5-3 after a kill from senior Kristen Curley, but Falmouth ran off the next seven points, thanks to the service of Burton. The Rams crept back within 11-8, but Tait, last year’s libero, showed she can get it done at the net with a kill and a block to help make it 14-8. Gorham got the next two points, but after winning a long point, the Yachtsmen stretched their lead to 21-11 behind a kill from Abbott and an ace from Armstrong. An ace from Burton and a kill from Noyes got the hosts close, but the Rams refused to go quietly and they drew within 24-19 when Kolb produced a kill.
Falmouth coach Molly Northway then called timeout and it had the desired effect as a kill from Armstrong brought the curtain down on the 25-19 victory.
“We work on taking a deep breath,” Northway said. “The girls get so excited and into the play, but sometimes they get too into the play and they don’t focus enough.”
The Yachtsmen raced out of the gates in the third set, getting a block from Armstrong, a kill from Armstrong and another block from Armstrong and after Gorham earned a point, a pair of aces from Tait and a Burton kill opened up a seemingly commanding 9-1 lead.
The Rams chipped away, however, and when Kolb had a block and kill on successive points, they were only down by one, 15-14.
Again, a Falmouth timeout turned the tide.
The Yachtsmen would win the next four points, highlighted by a Birkel ace, to go up, 19-14. After the teams traded points, Tait served up an ace, Abbott had a kill and Tait served successive aces to put Falmouth on the brink of victory. Tait couldn’t serve it out, however, sending the ball into the net, but on the next point, Gorham hit the ball into the net and after 66 efficient minutes, the Yachtsmen had a 25- 18, 25-19, 25-16 match victory.
“It was a little hairy there and could have gone either way,” Northway said. “We need to play with confidence and make the best play possible on every point.”
The Yachtsmen were led statistically by Birkel, who had 17 assists and 11 service points, Tait, who had 13 service points, including seven aces, and three kills, Burton, who had six kills and six service points, Noyes, who had six kills, and Armstrong, who finished with five service points, three blocks and three kills.
If that wasn’t enough, Watson was a steady defensive presence.
Falmouth’s plan is falling into place.
“I’d say we’re a very mature team,” Birkel said. “The people who haven’t been on the court have played club (volleyball). We have a lot of people who can play in a lot of different spots, versatile players. It’s been finding the right puzzle pieces. A lot of people are at the same talent level, but players are stepping up and being rewarded. Madi Tait was our libero last year. She’s now an outside hitter. Amanda Watson, who set last year, is now our libero. I was a defensive specialist last year and I’m setting.”
“I started off the year assuming Amanda would be our setter, but as the preseason went along, I saw that we had an emerging setter in Alaina and Amanda’s stepped up with her passing,” Northway said. “We can use Madi outside and she covers so much ground.”
Falmouth’s serving was a big difference Thursday, as the Yachtsmen produced 15 aces.
“Serve consistency is something you can control,” Birkel said. “You can’t always control your passes or receiving.”
“We’ve been working hard on serving,” Northway said. “My short girls can jump.”
Gorham was paced by seven service points, four blocks and four kills from Kolb.
Gorham is back in action Tuesday at home versus South Portland. The Rams then see defending Class A champion Scarborough Thursday of next week.
Falmouth plays down at always-tough Biddeford Tuesday, then will get a shot at avenging last year’s ouster when Greely pays a visit Thursday.
“We want to win and we have a winning attitude,” Birkel said. “We don’t want to lose and we don’t expect to lose. All my teammates want to be there at the end. We can do it. We know we’re a different team from last year, but we’re using it as an advantage. People don’t know what to expect from us and that’s a good thing.”
“We want to get better and be in contention,” Northway said. “It’s just a matter of putting the pieces together. It’s anyone’s game this year.”
Falmouth junior Danielle Casavant sets the ball.
Falmouth senior Madi Tait goes up for a kill as Gorham sophomore Isabelle Kolb defends.
Falmouth senior Victoria Burton handles a shot.
Falmouth junior Alison Noyes is no match at the net for Gorham sophomore Maiya Carlson and senior Kristen Curley.
Falmouth junior Alston Armstrong blocks the shot of Gorham senior Diana Kolb.
Falmouth senior Alaina Birkel sets the ball for a teammate.
Falmouth seniors Amanda Watson, left, and Victoria Burton celebrate a point.