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Panthers bring it home

MA volleyball claims first state title since '04

MA poses with its brand new state championship plaque following the 3-2 win over Farmington on Friday night. Jeff Lajoie. (click for larger version)
November 07, 2011
PLYMOUTH – Just a little bit of that Moultonboro magic.

Junior outside hitter Kaitlin Slippy stepped up just in time to save the day, and the tandem of Ally Lively and Kim Delaney combined for a block on match point as the Moultonboro Academy volleyball team captured the Division III state championship on Friday night. The fifth-seeded Lady Panthers held off a charge from second-seeded Farmington High School in a

25-16, 25-20, 18-25, 16-25, 15-11 victory at Plymouth State before a packed house.

The title was the first for MA since capturing three straight from 2002 to 2004. The Panthers last reached the championship match in 2007, when they were swept by Nute.

"I've heard stories about how it happens, how you can't describe the feeling…and now I know how that feels," said senior libero Kassie Malm after the win. "It's amazing. Being my senior year it just makes this so much better."

With the decisive fifth set all even at 10-10, the Panthers picked an excellent time to come alive. Delaney registered a kill to make it 11-10 and Slippy followed with back-to-back spikes for a 13-10 lead. After a Farmington block cut into the gap, Slippy again came through with a kill to set up match point. With the gymnasium at PSU reaching a fever pitch, Delaney and Ally Lively went up for a block, and they managed to send the Farmington hit back across the net and down onto the floor to set off a raucous celebration.

"My heart dropped and I just jumped in the air," said senior Kelsi West of the final point celebration. "We just put our heart on that floor and it feels so good because it's my senior year and we worked so hard for this. I just can't believe it."

It was quite a ride for the Panthers (17-3) to the state title, as the squad had to knock off the top two seeds (Winnisquam and Farmington) to claim the championship. It was also extra special for the team's three seniors, as Malm, West and Brittney Hale waited their entire high school careers to experience the thrill of victory.

"I'm very close to these three," said MA coach John Garneau of the trio. "Since the seventh grade we've been together and I wanted so badly for them to win this. They're such nice kids, hard workers. They're very close, no drama to speak of, always on time, never want to leave practice. It's always one more, one more ball."

Slippy's ability to raise her level of play in crunch time was on display yet again, and she relished the opportunity to send the senior class out with a title.

"We did it for our seniors," Slippy said. "They were such great captains and we wanted to do it for them. I think we just pulled everything together for those last few points and decided we didn't come all this way to lose right at the end."

This one had a little of everything, and the near-capacity crowd in attendance certainly got its money's worth. MA opened the match just the way Garneau had hoped it would, as a steady diet of Hale and Slippy allowed the Panthers to easily grab the opening set, 25-16.

It was more of the same in the second frame, as MA stormed out to an 11-3 lead behind the serving of setter Rachael Duddy. But Farmington (18-2) didn't make it easy the rest of the way, as the Tigers closed within 17-15 before Slippy put down three straight kills to secure some breathing room. A Delaney ace followed by a Jenn Lively kill on game point had MA rolling and up 2-0 with hopes of closing things out in sweeping fashion.

That wasn't the case unfortunately, as Farmington came roaring back in the middle sets. The Tigers looked like a completely different team, as they scrambled all over the floor defensively to keep points alive and convert on the offensive end. After winning the third game, 25-18, Farmington forced a winner take all fifth set with a 25-16 win in game four.

"I think we got a little too comfortable, probably thought we've got it no problem," said Malm of the letdown in games three and four. "Somewhere in the back of our minds I think we knew we had to keep playing but for some reason we didn't."

With both teams' student sections going back and forth all night, the gymnasium was rocking as the teams huddled in preparation for game five.

"The momentum changes were unbelievable," said Delaney. "You've just got to remember that it's part of the game, it's what makes it so great. Just fighting through and knowing in the end that we have each other's backs is what got us through it."

Steady as a rock pacing the sideline throughout, Garneau had faith his troops would rebound in the fifth set.

"They have that quality in them that seems to say, 'Oh well we lost two, we've got to come back now.' It's all in the past for them," the veteran coach explained. "I don't get nervous, I don't feel nauseous or anything during a match. I feel frustrated, those sorts of things.

"I pace up and down…they accuse me of growling when they miss a service," he continued with a laugh. "They hear me saying something and they call it a growl."

While the Tigers opened the fifth set up 3-1, MA quickly rattled off four straight to take a 5-3 lead. Things couldn't have been much tighter throughout, as the score was tied 6-6, 7-7, 8-8, 9-9 and 10-10 before the Panthers put together their final run to secure the championship.

"I think the nerves got to us after we went up 2-0 and all the pressure of, 'Oh, we only have to win this game to win the championship," Slippy said. "Just everything combined into one in our heads. But we came through in the end, that's all that matters."

While the two teams didn't play during the regular season, MA did get a look at the Tigers when they beat Epping in the semifinal right before the Panthers edged Winnisquam in the nightcap.

"Our game plan was to exploit their libero and open up the middle a little bit," said Garneau. "And we did that in the first two games, we had some great tips. Then they seemed to adjust but we couldn't serve receive all of a sudden. Once that happens, they got a few good hits and they're a great defensive club. We had a very difficult time picking out spots to hit. There was a shallow angle open and some up the line stuff but we weren't able to get the ball there very often."

After losing to Winnisquam in three sets on Oct. 17, the Panthers won five straight matches to close out the season, including a 3-2 win in the rematch over the Bears in the semifinals.

Something certainly seemed to click for MA during the postseason.

"We just forgot everything and everything became about volleyball," said Malm. "It was straight volleyball and we were such a close team that we pushed together."

Delaney agreed.

"I think a lot of people didn't expect (the title) but our coaches and the rest of the team were there all season long and we pulled it all together and executed when we needed to do it," the junior said. "It's what we worked for all season and it just speaks to the heart of the girls we have on this team to be able to get it done."

The win gave Garneau his 12th state title overall as a coach, and his fifth with the MA program.

"That's what the finals are about, two good defensive teams and two big hitting teams…you can't ask for anything more than that," he said.

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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