By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – If the amazing showdown between the RHAM and Bristol Eastern volleyball teams on Wednesday, Oct. 24 is any indication on how the Class L state tournament will go down in November, the Lancers are in for one heck of a ride.
And in a regular season treat from the Thomas M. Monahan Gymnasium in Bristol, the Sachems pushed the locals to the brink but in the end, Eastern took home the victory in the battle of undefeated teams – sinking RHAM, 3-2, in a Central Connecticut Conference Interdivisional thriller.
Game scores were 25-18, 20-25, 25-17, 17-25, and 15-10 as the Lancers (15-0) remained the only Class L squad yet to earn a loss this season.
RHAM fell to 13-1 and the state’s scholastic volleyball rankings were certainly going to change this coming week via the Eastern win.
“It means a lot to us,” said Eastern setter Leah Chipman of the win. “This was our main focus for the season. We were both undefeated, they’re not undefeated anymore, but it took a lot. It took a lot for us to come here [and win]. We work hard in practice every single day to get to this point. And I feel like, as of now, we earned it.”
Zoe Lowe had a huge game for the Lancers as she collected 21 kills, two blocks and three aces over a tremendous effort.
Hannah Webber, the sophomore sensation, zipped up 12 kills and was excellent from her middle hitting position.
Ryley Plourde put together a huge match for the Lancers that included eight kills and a career-high five blocks which sent the RHAM’s front line reeling.
Rebecca Bender commanded the backline, sending over two serves that could not be returned, collecting 30 service points while adding six digs to the winning effort.
Brooke Dorsio dropped in seven kills and added 17 service points over a big effort and then there was Chipman, directing traffic like only she knows how, on her way to 47 assists.
Kaylin Hadley, RHAM’s excellent middle, jammed home 15 kills while blocking three shots.
Meredith Blinn bumped up 21 digs and was a defensive standout at libero.
Hannah Mullaney and Gabriella Johnson each kicked in nine kills while Keira Sullivan had seven kills and nine digs.
Setter Kate Santella collected 38 assists to lead the visiting aggression.
Both squads ended up trading set wins in the match before the Lancers took the fifth and deciding game by five points.
“I think that RHAM played well,” said Chipman. “We played well…we knew it was going to be this way.”
RHAM lobbed several free balls at Eastern to open the match and the Lancers pounced on those chances to take a 1-0 lead in the match.
Eastern trailed out of the gate but quickly surged in front when Webber flipped down a shot that was never returned before blocking a return that made it 10-6.
Both squads traded points for most of the remaining stanza before Lowe took over with several loud kills from the left side of the court as Chipman was piling up the assists with Eastern leading, 21-15.
The Sachems eventually trimmed the deficit to three late before Plourde blocked a shot, Dorsio sent a ball over that was not returned while one final kill in the middle from Plourde ended the set with the Lancers 25-17 winners.
“I relied on my middles today and my outsides but Ryley and Hannah both killed it in the middle,” said Chipman. “We’ve been working on putting the ball down.”
Mistakes foiled Eastern over the second set though the home team managed to hang around in the fray.
A net violation, plus a tip over by Plourde that fell out of bounds, gave RHAM a 17-11 edge midway through the set before a mini 7-3 Eastern run – highlighted by a kill from Webber – chopped the deficit to 20-18.
But four straight points from RHAM put Eastern on the brink and one final kill by Mullaney did-in the Lancers as the 25-20 win tied the affair up at 1-1.
However, Eastern had a loud response in set number three.
With the Lancers ahead by four, Bender served over a ball that grazed the net and cleanly fell to the RHAM’s side of the floor as a nifty 4-0 run had the visitors calling timeout, trailing 13-5.
“Honestly, we needed that,” said Chipman of the quick start in set three. “We have a second game slump we call it where we just drop down to the other team’s level but we know that we can’t do that anymore. We really pulled ourselves together tonight.”
Later in the set, Eastern’s Ariana Caucci sent serves that never made it back over the net as RHAM still trailed by eight at 20-12.
That deficit was eventually chopped to five but the offense simply came too late and when Dorsio sent over a kill that was blocked out of bounds, it sealed the game as the Lancers won the set, 25-17, and took a 2-1 lead in match play.
Over the fourth set, a challenge either team could have won, RHAM broke a 16-16 stalemate and put together a huge run.
Eastern errors fueled the drive, along with a couple loud kills by Mullaney, as her final spike in the set ended a 9-1 run and Eastern absorbed a tough 25-17 loss.
Quickly, the match was all tied up at 2-2, forcing a winner-take-all, 15-point fifth and final set.
“I think they’re really known for their defense,” said Chipman of RHAM. “[And] they have some pretty strong hitters.”
And in the final act of the match, the Lancers led wire-to-wire.
Though RHAM eventually trimmed a four point setback to one, the visitors could never draw even against the Kingstreeters.
A huge save by Blinn finally got RHAM on the board, trailing 4-1, but the Sachems made too many early miscues to catch the Lancers.
A three-point burst by RHAM cut the Eastern edge to 6-5 but the Lancers responded with a 4-1 jaunt – highlighted by a lofting Lowe kill and later, an ace from the outstanding outside hitter – and the Sachems were behind by four again.
Webber made another kill moments later and off another spike that was sent out of play, Eastern’s lead grew to five at 12-7 and RHAM was on the brink.
Leading by three late, Chipman hooked up Plourde with a kill from the middle of the floor and when a Dorsio serve was not returned, the celebration began as the Lancers won the set 15-10 and took the match, three games to two, remaining undefeated on the campaign.
“We definitely earned it,” said Chipman. “We pushed ourselves to get here. We’re all really happy.”
NOTES…USA TODAY High School Sports and the American Volleyball Coaches Association released its Super 25 Regional Girls Volleyball Rankings last week and Bristol Eastern made the list.