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Joyce Endee

Twice as nice

Eagles repeat as champions in 3-0 sweep of St. Thomas

by Jeff Lajoie
Sports Reporter

For the second consecutive year, the Gilford volleyball team claimed the Division II state championship. The Eagles swept top-seeded and undefeated St. Thomas, 25-9. 27-25, 25-20, on Nov. 3 at Pinkerton Academy for the title. Joshua Spaulding. (click for larger version)
November 05, 2012
DERRY – Charleyne Panner couldn't control the emotions afterwards. During the match, there wasn't much she couldn't control.

The Gilford High School senior setter found favorite target Jessa Crites all night long, and the duo helped lead the Golden Eagles to a second consecutive state championship on Nov. 3. Second-seeded Gilford swept top-seeded and previously unbeaten St. Thomas Aquinas High School of Dover, 25-9, 27-25, 25-20, to claim the Division II title at Pinkerton Academy in a rematch of last year's championship tilt, also won by the Eagles.

"We worked so hard this year, you have no idea," said Panner after the win. "This feels so much better (than last year). Last year was great because we won with a lot of my best friends but this year, being unexpected makes it so much better."

Panner finished with 35 assists on the night, giving nearly half of them to Crites, the sophomore outside hitter who saved arguably her best match for last. The hard-hitting Crites registered 17 kills and two blocks, establishing her dominance from the get-go.

"This one feels way more deserved for me," said Crites of the title. "Last year I played (as a freshman) but this year I felt like I had to step it up for everyone else. This was a big family win for us."

Winning state championships certainly doesn't get old for Gilford coach Joan Forge, and the performance her Eagles came up with during this title match will certainly be one she'll remember for years to come.

"I am in awe of my team," said an ecstatic Forge. "They have that desire where they practice so long and so hard. That paid off for them. But it was the best match we've played all season. We were on fire. We did everything right and there wasn't one aspect of our game that faltered. It was as close to perfect as we could be in a championship match."

With as strong of a program as the Eagles have been over the past 20 years, it was a bit of a unique position facing Forge's club entering the finals. Top-seeded St. Thomas was undefeated, having swept Gilford during the regular season. The Saints didn't drop a single set all year until the semifinal round, and they felt this was the year to grab a state crown.

"Gilford plays some really good volleyball so we weren't taking anything for granted," said St. Thomas coach Kristie Holtz. "We went into it thinking nothing that happened during the regular season mattered but we couldn't find any rhythm."

If there were any thoughts that the Saints would sweep Gilford for a second time this year, that was put to rest in the opening set. The Eagles absolutely exploded out of the gates, building a 12-5 lead after a Panner tip kill that forced Holtz to call timeout. The St. Thomas coach would have to use her second timeout of the set just minutes later, as kills from Kira and Jessa Crites and an ace from Panner made it 18-8 Gilford.

The Eagles didn't let their foot off the gas, with Mikaela Mattice serving out the final two points in a 25-9 rout that sent a message to the top-seeded Saints.

"That was very important," said Jessa Crites of the fast start. "Once we got those first few points, our energy just picked up and we took off from there."

The momentum from the opening set carried over into the second, as Gilford built a 7-1 lead thanks to kills from Mattice and Jessa Crites. The Saints finally put some offense together however, as they climbed back within 13-12.

Both sides used runs after that, as Gilford got kills from Jessa Crites and Brooke Beland and an ace from Mattice to extend things to 18-13. Back came the Saints though, reeling off a 9-1 run to take a 22-19 lead after three straight Gilford errors.

But just when it looked like the Eagles were in danger of dropping the set, Kira Crites stepped into the spotlight with three straight kills. While St. Thomas still had a set point at 25-24, Mattice came through with a kill. After an error by the Saints, Panner dealt a crushing blow when she put down a tip kill for the 27-25 win that really deflated St. Thomas.

"Even after the first game, we were prepared for anything," said Jessa Crites. "We knew St. Thomas was ready for a fight in the second set but at the end, we just said 'This is ours, let's finish this."

Despite leading 2-0 with just one set standing between her team and the championship, Panner didn't feel comfortable by any means. She knew there was plenty of volleyball left.

"It doesn't matter what happened before, I wasn't any less nervous until the very last point," she said. "I was shaking the entire game."

The third and decisive set saw the teams battle back and forth until Gilford pulled away late. It was 14-13 Eagles before a 6-1 run forced Holtz to call a timeout. The Crites' sisters each registered a kill late, with Kira putting it down on match point for the 25-20 win that set off bedlam on the Gilford side of the court. The Eagles bench was on the floor almost instantaneously after the ball hit the floor.

"We were prepared today," said Forge. "In the second game we showed our composure. We work a lot on the mental part of the game and we were mentally strong there when we had to be."

Panner added 14 digs and two kills to go along with her 35 assists, while Jessa Crites had seven digs. Kira Crites totaled 13 kills in the win while Mattice was a key contributor with two kills and 11 digs. Beland registered two kills and a block in just her second match back from a wrist injury while freshman Jordan Dean had two kills in the middle. Senior libero Kelly Gallant paced the back row yet again with 16 digs while junior Danice Gelotte chipped in with 13 digs.

"This title is rewarding for a few reasons," began Forge. "First, St. Thomas was the team to beat all year long. People said they were the best team and they were supposed to win. Second, we avenged the only blemish on our record when we lost to them in the regular season. And third, I have nine seniors. It's always a different feeling when you're a senior and you really want to win it during your final year. We really wanted them to go out on top."

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