Winnisquam poses with its brand new state championship plaque following a three-set sweep of Nute on Nov. 3. Jeff Lajoie. (click for larger version)
November 05, 2012PLYMOUTH – For the second time in three years, Winnisquam felt right at home in Plymouth.
Taking an unconventional path as the sixth-seeded team in the Division III draw, the Winnisquam Regional High School volleyball team captured its second state championship in three years on Nov. 2, as the Bears swept fifth-seeded Nute, 25-22, 25-23, 25-16 at Plymouth State.
"I think two years ago I might not have appreciated it as much," admitted senior setter and captain Elyssa Clairmont. "But it's just as good of a feeling this time around."
After winning the crown in 2010, the Bears were the number one seed last year after an undefeated regular season. But an upset loss to eventual champion Moultonborough Academy in the semifinals meant no repeat for Winnisquam. That loss only fueled things for a trip back this time around.
"I think (losing last year) gave us more drive to get back here," said junior outside hitter Hannah Chapin. "Being the six seed, no one expected us to win this."
For Winnisquam coach Mike Livernois, the journey back to a state championship wasn't easy. His team lost four matches during the regular season, including a pair to Nute. But the Bears peaked at exactly the right time, getting hot once the playoffs began and not cooling down until the title was coming home to Tilton.
"I've got great players," began Livernois. "They work hard, they perform well under pressure. I was fortunate in 2010 to have seniors that set a tone and allowed us to build a program. I'm only as good a coach as the players around me."
It was a raucous atmosphere all night long, with nearly the entire Winnisquam section of the gymnasium at PSU filled with black shirts. The Bears would need that support from the crowd, as Nute (16-4), which knocked off top-seeded and undefeated Campbell in the semifinals, built a 17-12 lead in the first set and appeared destined to take a 1-0 advantage.
Winnisquam (16-4) chipped away however, as a kill from Chapin and an ace from Dallis Austin brought the Bears a bit closer to the Rams. Winnisquam would tie the score at 20-20 when Clairmont put down a tip kill, and after a Nute error, Carissa Archibald got up for a monster block on Nute's Alisha Flanagan to take a 22-20 lead. Mo Raymond gave the opening frame to the Bears when she put down a kill off an assist from Clairmont for the 25-22 win.
"That was our goal," said Chapin of winning the first set. "We really wanted it and we wanted to get the momentum going. We talked about needing the lead and once we grabbed it we didn't want to let up."
Winnisquam's success in the opening game came as a result of its defensive prowess. Archibald and Austin keyed a back row that kept balls alive despite a pair of formidable Nute hitters in Alisha and Abby Flanagan.
"Our game plan (in the semis) against Farmington was to tip a lot but with Nute, we knew they had strong hitters so it was a defensive game for us," Clairmont explained.
Winnisquam jumped out to an 11-4 lead in the second set on the strength of a service run from Archibald. Kills from Clairmont, Raymond and Felly Pelletier were mixed in early, as Archibald tossed in back to back aces.
Nute would climb back within 13-10, but the Bears had another run with kills from Clairmont and Chapin sandwiched around an Austin aces. Winnisquam led 19-13 and were staring a 2-0 lead right in the face before the Rams crawled back yet again. An ace from Nute's Kelsey Taatjes got her side even at 22-22, but an error in a huge spot put the Bears back on top. Junior Bailey Long came up with a huge block to set up match point, and with Winnisquam clinging to a one-point lead, Clairmont put arguably her finest point of the night down when she tipped a ball down to a perfect spot to secure the 25-23 win.
"Elyssa Clairmont has more court savvy than any player I've ever been around," lauded Livernois of his setter. "Just to watch what she does out there…she can take the wind out of the other team's sails with huge points like that."
With the crowd now sensing that a title was imminent, the Bears tried to maintain their composure in the third frame. Winnisquam again got out to a fast start, jumping ahead 14-6 thanks to a Pelletier ace and a Clairmont block, forcing Nute coach Kristin Wilson to call timeout.
"We always feed off the crowd," said Chapin of the large Winnisquam contingent in attendance. "We love it when it's loud. We play better when that happens."
Long and Chapin had kills to push the lead to 19-11, and while Nute would get within 21-16, Pelletier single-handedly closed the door on the win. The senior registered a kill and served three straight points, two coming via aces, to close the door and secure the state championship with the 25-16 win.
"We needed Felly's experience on the court," said Livernois. "She brought calmness to the lineup tonight. She's one of the hardest working kids I've coached."
The final few points were certainly heart-stoppers for the Bears, as closing out a title is never easy, no matter the circumstances.
"The last few points I was just trying to keep a level head and stay in the game," said Clairmont. "It's just an amazing feeling."
Clairmont's brilliance on the floor was on display all night, as the senior did it all for the Bears in the win. Her court vision and calm demeanor led the way for a team that stayed even-keeled throughout the tournament run. Clairmont finished with 19 assists, five kills, two blocks and two aces in the title match.
Chapin led the offense with nine kills, while Raymond (five kills), Long (four) and Archibald (three) also chipped in. Archibald totaled 10 digs to pace the defensive effort, while Raymond (seven), Austin (seven) and Clarissa MacDonald (five) also aided the cause. Hannah Kilcoyne tossed in three aces from the service line, as did Long.
It was a rollercoaster postseason ride for the Bears, as they swept Inter-Lakes in the first round before edging defending champion Moultonborough in the quarters in five sets. Add in a tight four-setter against Farmington in the semifinals and there was a little bit of everything mixed in along the way to a championship.
"It's been such a tough road to get here," said Livernois. "We've been playing in pressure packed games all tournament but the girls just don't panic. Our motto all season has been 'Do your job, do your best, play to win.' And they really did that when it counted."
NOTES: Nute won both regular season meetings with the Bears, taking 3-1 wins in both Tilton and Milton… While the fifth-seeded Rams beat number one Campbell in the semifinals in four sets, many local coaches weren't surprised by the results. Campbell went undefeated during the regular season but didn't play any of the other three semifinalists until reaching the Final Four… Winnisquam graduates just two seniors, though both were key contributors in the finals in Clairmont and Pelletier… Livernois mentioned how his strong junior class is experienced in big matches, having played at Plymouth State in each of their three seasons with the varsity team.