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Simply perfect!

Undefeated Gilford wins its first volleyball title since 2007 after two straight runner-up finishes

The Gilford volleyball team poses with the state championship trophy after besting St. Thomas on Saturday in Derry. Joshua Spaulding. (click for larger version)
November 07, 2011
DERRY – After back-to-back runner up finishes, the Gilford High School volleyball team's senior class claimed its first state championship on Saturday.

Behind a well-rounded offensive attack in the clinching fourth set, the top-seeded and undefeated Golden Eagles claimed their first state title since 2007 thanks to a 26-24, 21-25, 25-18, 25-18 win over St. Thomas Aquinas High School of Dover in the Division II championship match played at Pinkerton Academy.

"I feel like we've been waiting for this for so long," said senior middle Courtney Leach. "We wanted it so bad. We've been together since freshman year and we were finally able to finish it off."

After winning nine straight championships from 1999-2007, Gilford fell in the semifinals in 2008 but came back to reach the title match each of the last two seasons. But the Eagles were swept both times in losses to Hollis-Brookline (2009) and Oyster River (2010).

"Remember, this whole team hadn't won a championship," said Gilford coach Joan Forge. "So this was it for these seniors, they were tired of runner-up finishes. They trained with a purpose."

Gilford (20-0) had to dig deep in the finals, as second-seeded St. Thomas (19-3) made life difficult all evening long. That was clear during the opening set, as neither team took bigger than a four-point lead in a tight affair. The Saints actually led 21-18 after an ace from Cecilia Chrisom, forcing Forge to call timeout and regroup as the game looked to be getting out of reach. Gilford responded out of the huddle, and the team scored four straight points behind the serving of freshman Jessa Crites and a kill from Leach to take a 22-21 lead. With the score tied at 24-24, senior Olivia Broderick put down a kill to set up game point, and a hitting error from St. Thomas allowed the Eagles to take the early 1-0 advantage.

"Fortunately we got that first game because they had us," admitted Forge.

The momentum carried over into the second set, as the Eagles stormed out to an 11-4 lead behind the hitting of Broderick and Crites, with junior setter Charleyne Panner doing a great job mixing up her passes. With the score 19-11, Panner quick-set Broderick with a perfect pass that the senior hammered home, reaching a milestone in the process. The assist was the 1,000th of Panner's career, and Forge called timeout as the crowd acknowledged the feat with signs and applause.

In control up 20-11, Gilford looked poised to cruise to the game two victory and look to end the match in game three. St. Thomas had other ideas however, and the Saints took the life out of the Gilford section with an amazing 14-1 run following the timeout behind the serving of Sydney Harris. The Eagles had no answers and struggled mightily on service receive, as STA took advantage of a hitting error on game point to even the match up via the 25-21 set two win.

"We needed to focus in on what we were doing a lot better at the end of that game," said senior Katie Welch. "We started having a lot of trouble getting the ball to Charleyne off their serve."

It was a helpless feeling for the Eagles during the St. Thomas run, something Panner tried not to dwell on moving forward.

"We all got frustrated," the junior said. "It was kind of sad to give up that game, it almost made me wish I hadn't gotten (the 1,000th assist) right there so we could've just kept going. But I thought we regrouped after that and kept our composure."

The sides battled in another close one during set three, as St. Thomas led 13-12. But Gilford finally put a mini-run together, as Leach and Panner put down back-to-back kills and Kira Crites tallied a pair of aces to put the Eagles up 16-13. The lead grew from there, as Welch had two kills during the final stretch to secure the 25-18 win.

"You've just got to take it point by point, game by game," said Forge. "You can't think about what happened before in a situation like that."

Gilford slowly ran away with the fourth set after holding a 14-12 lead, as Kira Crites, Broderick, Welch, Jessa Crites and Leach all had big kills in the frame. Leach put down a kill on match point to set off a wild celebration four years in the making.

"You just kind of watched that surge of power…everyone was feeling it," said Forge.

"Once we got that final point, it was pretty much a big blur," said Broderick. "I knew this was my last chance as a senior. Every part of our game got better from last year and we finally got it done."

The senior class of Broderick, Leach, Welch, Jasmyn Starr, Mary Snow and Rachael Colbath, mixed with plenty of talent from the underclassmen had Forge thinking big even before the season began.

"I knew from the beginning that we were loaded…but not fine-tuned," the coach said. "But we never talk about winning or losing. On Day 1 we said we're going to do everything we can to win a championship, but we never mentioned it again after that."

The Eagles saw St. Thomas once during the regular season, and the Saints managed to take a game off Gilford in a 3-1 loss on Sept. 24.

"We were pretty confident coming in but we knew they were going to give us a championship match," said Welch.

Panner agreed.

"We all knew it was going to be an absolute battle," she said. "We knew (STA) was going to play their hearts out but so were we. We knew we didn't have it, we knew we were going to have to fight for it."

Gilford lost just four sets all season long and never played a decisive fifth set, including the four matches during the postseason run.

Salmon Press
Martin Lord Osman
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