Scarborough holds off South Portland, returns to Class A pinnacle

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Scarborough’s volleyball team celebrates after clinching the Class A state title Friday night by virtue of a 3-1 (25-19, 25-17, 16-25, 25-12) victory over South Portland. The Red Storm won their second championship in three seasons.

Mike Strout photos.

More photos below.

PORTLAND—The coronation came as expected.

But it didn’t come easily.

Friday evening at Deering High School, Scarborough’s volleyball team, which has made a habit of playing on the sport’s biggest stage, squared off against Cinderella South Portland with the Class A state title on the line and 10 days after handling the Red Riots in straight sets, the Red Storm were expected by most to roll to the crown.

Not so fast.

Fifth-seeded South Portland, on the heels of upset victories over No. 4 Gorham and top-ranked Deering, served notice that it planned to contend to the bitter end, but in the end, second-ranked Scarborough’s depth, passing, ability to keep the ball off the floor and burning desire to return to the pinnacle proved to be the difference.

In front of a large and raucous crowd, the Red Storm shot to an 11-4 lead in the first set, but the Red Riots crept back to 20-17 before Scarborough closed it out, 25-19, behind four aces from sophomore Asia Mattress.

South Portland took an early 3-0 lead in the second game, but Red Storm senior Caelyn Sheil then found her way to the service line and her nine-point run put Scarborough on top to stay. The Red Riots got as close as 11-9, but the serving and net play of senior Natalie Simonton and passing of senior Ivy DiBiase allowed Scarborough to pull away to prevail, 25-17, as a Simonton kill put the Red Storm firmly in control.

South Portland could have rolled over and received praise for being a feel-good story, but the Red Riots, to their credit, roared back in the third game, riding the power of nonpareil senior hitter Molly Mawhinney, the passing of sophomore Ashlee Aceto and three key blocks from sophomore Kaleisha Towle to extend the match with a 25-16 triumph.

South Portland held all the momentum, but Scarborough quickly wrested it back, as DiBiase served up five straight points in the fourth game and the Red Storm never looked back, gradually pulling away before prevailing, 25-12, on a DiBiase kill, to take the match in four sets.

Scarborough finished the season 15-2, ended the Red Riots’ magical run at 10-7 and in the process, captured the program’s second Class A championship in three seasons.

“I just wanted this for the kids,” said Red Storm coach Jon Roberts. “I’m so proud of them. These kids sat behind the kids (from 2015 and 2016) for so long and they were really good and didn’t get to play. You root for them. They didn’t complain. They worked hard in practice for two years and didn’t get to see the court, so for them, it’s special.”

Collision course

Scarborough played in the Class A state final in 2011 (losing to Greely in four sets), 2013 (falling to Falmouth in four games), 2015 (beating Greely in four sets for its first championship) and last fall (losing to Greely in four games).

This year’s team began the season with many question marks and when the Red Storm were upset at home by upstart Deering in five sets on Opening Nights, doubts lingered, but Scarborough won seven straight to right the ship.

A 3-0 loss at Class B finalist Cape Elizabeth then followed and the Red Storm were at the crossroads, but they closed on a five-match win streak to earn the No. 2 seed in Class A.

“Deering was a wakeup call,” said Roberts. “They put together a great season. I have a lot of respect for them and their coach (Larry Nichols) is awesome. For us, the pivotal match was Cape. We weren’t ourselves. We got blitzed out of the gym. We were disappointed in how we played. After that, it was about mentally competing. If that match hadn’t happened, I don’t know if we would have gotten here.”

Scarborough swept No. 7 Thornton Academy in the quarterfinals and did the same thing to third-seeded Biddeford in Wednesday’s state semifinal round.

While the Red Storm were expected to play until the end of the season, South Portland was on no one’s radar back at the beginning of September.

The Red Riots became a varsity program in 2013 and last fall, they took part in a playoff match for the first time.

When South Portland started 1-3, no one batted an eye, but the Red Riots showed signs of being something special by winning their next four matches. Five-set losses to Portland and Biddeford followed, but South Portland won three in a row to ensure its first winning season before closing with a 3-0 home loss to Scarborough Oct. 17.

The Red Riots, ranked fifth in Class A, saved their best for last, outlasting fourth-ranked Gorham in four sets in the quarterfinals, then stunning No. 1 Deering in straight sets in Wednesday’s semifinals.

Scarborough won the regular season encounter by scores of 25-8, 25-11 and 25-16, giving Roberts his 100th career victory in the process.

While that result seemed to make the Red Storm prohibitive favorites Friday, in the first ever playoff encounter between the neighbors, both coaches felt that the rematch would be much closer.

“We took it to South Portland two weeks ago and that was their catalyst to get them fired up and get here,” Roberts said. “They’ve played great. They realized they could do it and they worked hard.”

“I told the girls if they played the same way they played against Gorham and Deering, then we’re not the team (Scarborough’s) used to seeing,” said Red Riots coach Nicole Kane. “We wanted to come out and work hard and show Scarborough a whole different side.”

Prior to the match, Scarborough was given the Class A Sportsmanship Award.

Then, with Deering’s gym nearly packed to the rafters with red-clad denizens, the Red Storm played their usual strong match, but South Portland had many highlights of its own in making Scarborough sweat to earn its championship.

Too deep, too strong

The Red Storm never trailed in the first game, but an apparent easy victory got tight before Scarborough put it away.

A kill from Sheil set the tone and after the Red Riots got on the board, Mattress had a kill and Sheil served up an ace.

Mawhinney’s first kill came from the back row, but a South Portland service fault allowed Mattress to step to the service line and she ripped off three straight aces for a 7-2 advantage. A kill from Simonton and an ace from senior Marissa Edwards made it 9-3. An ace from Simonton pushed the lead to 11-4, but Towle had a kill and after a kill from Mawhinney pulled the Red Riots within 11-7, Roberts called timeout.

Mawhinney added another kill, but the next five points went to Scarborough, highlighted by a block from senior Jamiyae Mattress and an ace from senior Laura Powell. Undaunted, South Portland got a pair of kills from Mawhinney and twice South Portland drew within four points, 16-12 and 17-13. The Red Storm didn’t let it slip away, however, as they went up by seven. Again, the Red Riots answered, as junior Grace Rende had an ace and Towle had a block to cut the deficit to 20-17.

The next point appeared to go to South Portland on a Rende block, but a net violation was called and Scarborough took advantage, getting an ace from Asia Mattress, a kill from Simonton and a soft kill from Simonton after a long point to bring the curtain down a 25-19 first set victory.

Mawhinney had five kills and Aceto added six assists and three service points, but it wasn’t enough as the Red Storm got key points from several sources to take the lead.

Scarborough then turned to its serving to roll in the second game.

The Red Riots got off to an auspicious beginning when they scored the first three points, highlighted by a Mawhinney kill which hung on the net and dropped and a Mawhinney ace. Asia Mattress countered with a kill and that sent Sheil to the service line.

She wouldn’t leave until the Red Storm turned a 3-1 deficit into a 10-4 lead.

After a Mattress kill, Scarborough drew even and Sheil followed with an ace to put her team on top for good. Simonton followed with a kill, the Red Storm got another point and a Mattress kill forced Kane to call timeout. It didn’t help, as Sheil served three more points before South Portland got the next point to finally end the string.

“Focus is key when you’re serving,” Sheil said. “One of my biggest pet peeves is missing serves.”

Behind a Mawhinney kill and a Towle block, the Red Riots crept back within 10-8, but Sheil countered with a kill. After a Mawhinney kill, Scarborough got the next four points, highlighted by a Simonton kill and an Edwards ace, to push the lead back to 15-9. Kills from Towle and Aceto made the deficit four, but senior Faith Winslow had a kill, Jamiyae Mattress had a block and Simonton served up consecutive aces for a 19-11 advantage, forcing Kane to call timeout again.

Simonton wasn’t done, serving another point on a Winslow block, then serving up an ace for a 10-point lead.

“Serving helps us with our momentum,” Simonton said. “It helps us with passing and hitting to have a service run.”

South Portland pulled with 22-14, but Jamiyae Mattress had a kill and Asia Mattress added a block to put the Red Storm on the brink. The Red Riots stayed alive behind an ace and a kill from Mawhinney, but a Simonton kill gave Scarborough the second set, 25-17, and a commanding 2-0 lead in the match.

Sheil had nine service points, Simonton added five and DiBiase finished with seven assists in the set, which counter-balanced six kills and four service points from Mawhinney and six Aceto assists.

But with midnight about to strike, Cinderella refused to go home and the Red Riots’ extended the match in impressive fashion.

Sheil started the third set with a kill, but Mawhinney countered with a kill of her own and Rende added another. Asia Mattress had a kill after a long point, but South Portland went ahead to stay on a kill from freshman Maria Degifico. With the score 4-3 Red Riots, Scarborough served a ball into the net, Towle had a block, then a kill, then another block to make it 8-3 and force Roberts to call timeout.

South Portland slowly pulled away, going up, 10-4, on a block from Towle, 17-8, behind a kill from Mawhinney, and 20-11 before the Red Storm crept back. Kills from Sheil, Asia Mattress and Asia Mattress again made it 22-16, but the Red Riots weren’t going to be denied their moment in the limelight, getting a kill from Mawhinney and after Scarborough hit the ball out, Mawhinney’s serve hit the net and fell over to end it, 25-16, pulling South Portland within 2-1 in the match.

In the set, Mawhinney had six kills and four service points, Aceto added 10 assists and Towle had three blocks.

“The third game, we just clicked,” Mawhinney said. “We got into a groove. Kaleisha just killed it. I’m so proud of her. When we’re on, we’re golden.”

“I’m impressed we were able to push through and get that win,” Kane said. “I wish we could have taken that momentum into game four.”

The Red Storm could have buckled themselves, but instead, they rose up and finished the match in style.

After the first point of the fourth set, one which featured a long series of volleys, went Scarborough’s way, it never looked back. A kill from Asia Mattress and a DiBiase ace pushed the lead to 5-0 and forced Kane to call a quick timeout.

“Volleyball comes down to serving and passing,” DiBiase said. “You just have to get it over the net. This is my first full year on varsity. I was a swing player last year. I just wanted to come in and see what I could do this year.”

The timeout helped momentarily, as Mawhinney had a kill and senior Shannon Murphy added a block, but a service fault and an Asia Mattress kill restored the five-point lead. After South Portland drew back within three, the next six points went to the Red Storm, highlighted by a kill from Winslow and two aces from Asia Mattress.

The Red Riots continued to fight and got a kill from Mawhinney, a block from Towle and two more points to make it 13-8, forcing Roberts to call timeout.

Scarborough responded, as Simonton had a kill and Winslow did the same for a 17-9 lead. After South Portland got consecutive points, kills from Asia Mattress, Jamiyae Mattress and Sheil made the score 21-11. The Red Riots got one final point, but a violation gave the Red Storm a point back, South Portland couldn’t get the ball over the net, Simonton had a kill to push Scarborough to the brink and at 7:38 p.m. after 1 hour, 34 minutes of action, DiBiase, the setter, produced a surprising final kill to end the set, 25-12, and the match, 3-1.

“I was getting ready to set, then out of the corner of my eye, I saw a huge empty spot and thought, ‘why not take it?’ and I went for it,” said DiBiase.

“I was so excited for Ivy to finally get that point,” Simonton said. “It was perfect timing. It was a perfect ending.”

At that point, the Red Storm mobbed the floor and celebrated their title.

“This feels amazing,” Simonton said. “You can’t ask for anything better senior year. We put in a great effort and in the end, we all benefited from it. We learned how to be a better team from our losses. Going undefeated doesn’t always help you in the end. We told ourselves not to underestimate (South Portland). They beat the number one seed. We knew we’d see a different team tonight, but we can handle the pressure. South Portland played amazing, but we brought our ‘A’ game. We were just trying to be fearless, control our side of the court and take care of our points. We tried to limit our mistakes.”

“I think everyone’s dream as a freshman is to win states as a senior,” Sheil said. “This is a dream come true. I’m just so proud of everyone. I’ve thought about this for years. The past three days, I didn’t get any sleep. I was waiting for this day to come. It’s an unreal feeling.”

“It’s just incredible,” DiBiase said. “It’s so exciting. We had so much confidence. We worked as hard as we could. I’m so proud of how we played. We lost that first match, but we still worked hard to get better and to prove we’re a top competitor. We didn’t really expect to play South Portland. We knew we beat them, but we expected them to bring their best game, and they did, but we played our game. After we lost that set, it threw us off, but we knew we could come back. We trusted each other to get there and we did.”

“We got that third set out of our system,” Roberts added. “We had to settle down and play our game. We looked awful in the third game, but we finished strong. Maybe teams in the past would have put their heads down, but we didn’t.”

A ride to remember

For South Portland, Mawhinney, who dazzled on the big stage of the postseason, bowed out with a match-high 20 kills. Mawhinney also had nine service points.

“I’m very appreciative,” Mawhinney said. “My teammates stood by me the whole way. I’m so proud.  I never ever thought this could happen. I want to thank Nicole Kane for everything she’s done for me.”

Rest assured that Scarborough was well aware of the Red Riots’ standout.

“We’ve improved on reading arm swings, so even when (Molly) hit back row, we were in position and we dug her shots,” Sheil said. “It’s fun to dig those hits.”

“All my kids have a ton of respect for Molly,” Roberts said. “They know what she can do. A couple weeks ago, they couldn’t get the ball to her. Tonight, they got it to her more. We knew she’d get her points, so we had to move on.”

Aceto had 26 assists and six service points, Towle added eight blocks, five kills and five service points and Rende had eight service points.

Ultimately, however, all of that wasn’t enough.

“Our Gorham and Deering games are the two best games we’ve ever played, so we wanted to come out tonight with the same energy,” Mawhinney said. “(Scarborough’s) just a stronger, more advanced team than we are. They’ve done this forever and this is just our fifth year. They took it to us in the fourth game. They came out stronger than ever. They deserved it.”

“Scarborough is an awesome team,” Kane said. “They’re the team to beat every year.

“I don’t think the girls should hang their heads after all they accomplished this season. We are starting to get more respect as a program. We have a lot of athletes coming in and trying out. Over half our team is made up of basketball players. We get athletes who really care about the sport and want to win. I love these girls. They’re my family. I’m sad we couldn’t get a Gold Ball, but I’m so lucky to have been able to coach them.”

South Portland loses Mawhinney and also graduates Skye McCann, Shannon Murphy, Libby von Seggern and Megan Whynot.

“The seniors will definitely be missed,” Kane said. “It’s the first group I coached all four years. They’ve worked hard every year. I’m happy they got to a state final.”

The Red Riots will return the likes of Aceto, Degifico, Rende and Towle, along with several others ready to make their mark.

South Portland will sneak up on no one in 2018, but it might not have to.

“I think we’ll get a lot more respect going forward,” Kane said. “People will know we’re not messing around and that volleyball is now a big sport at South Portland.”

Too much talent

For Scarborough, Simonton finished with 10 kills and seven service points, including five aces.

Sheil had six kills and added 13 service points.

DiBiase bowed out with 20 assists and 11 service points.

Asia Mattress had 11 kills, six aces and a pair of blocks in her final match with the program before her family moves out of state.

“Asia’s not coming back,” said Roberts. “She had a different aura about her tonight. She was all business. Normally, she has a big smile on her face. Tonight, I could tell, she was just business.”

Jamiyae Mattress added four kills and three blocks.

Freshman Mayne Gwyer had 10 assists.

“Being a coach and a teacher of setting, I spent a lot of time getting (Ivy and Mayne) where they could run an offense and I’m super-proud of them,” Roberts said. “This year was all about teaching and trusting.”

While Scarborough’s 2015 championship team had to go through Biddeford, Thornton Academy, Cape Elizabeth and Greely, this year’ squad didn’t face quite as formidable a road.

Roberts, who was a vocal critic of the new three-class format before the season began, ultimately came around.

“It would be hypocritical for me to say now that it’s the greatest thing in the world, but with that being said, we had to play great teams,” Roberts said. “We didn’t shy away from playing the traditionally great teams. It hurt our Heal Points, but overall, it helped us get mentally prepared and ready.”

Expect Scarborough to be in the hunt for another shiny trophy next fall.

“I’m excited for next year,” said Roberts. “We’ll be a different team. We’ll lose a lot of height, but we’ll be scrappy and aggressive. I love the kids coming back. We’ll still be good. We’re excited to get to work.”

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

Scarborough sophomore Asia Mattress sets the ball.

Scarborough senior Natalie Simonton goes up for a kill as South Portland sophomore Kaleisha Towle, left, and freshman Maria Degifico defend.

South Portland senior Molly Mawhinney delivers a kill over Scarborough senior Faith Winslow.

South Portland sophomore Kaleisha Towle goes to the floor to dig out a shot.

Scarborough senior Ivy DiBiase prepares a serve.

Scarborough senior Jamiyae Mattress goes up for a kill over South Portland junior Grace Rende.

South Portland freshman Maria Degifico shouts with joy after a Red Riots’ point in the third set.

After taking the third set to extend the match, South Portland sophomore Kaleisha Towle, left, senior Molly Mawhinny, sophomore Ashlee Aceto, freshman Maria Degifico, senior Shannon Murphy and junior Grace Rende exult.

Scarborough senior Marissa Edwards, left, sophomore Asia Mattress, senior Caelyn Sheil, senior Ivy DiBiase, senior Laura Powell and senior Natalie Simonton celebrate winning a key point.

Scarborough senior captains Natalie Simonton, Caelyn Sheil and Ivy DiBiase raise the Gold Ball for all to see.

South Portland senior Molly Mawhinney, left, and sophomore Kaleisha Towle show off the runner-up trophy.

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Sports Editor of The Forecaster since 2001. Find detailed game stories at theforecaster.net. I tweet prodigiously at @foresports.