Panthers fall in title match to Tigers

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En route to making an appearance in the Division III title match, the Johnston High girls’ volleyball team faced a bit of adversity against St. Raphael’s Academy last Thursday in the semifinal round.

While it was a clean sweep for the Panthers, 3-0, it was a second set comeback for the ages that propelled Johnston past St. Ray’s.

The Panthers encountered little resistance in the first set, a 25-17 victory. The team never trailed after the 2-1 point, sparked by a Maikou Kue 6-0 service run that included three aces. St. Ray’s tied the set as late as 11-11, but it was all Johnston the rest of the way. Another 6-0 service run, this time courtesy of Lauren Messa, officially left St. Ray’s in the rearview.

Messa got the Panthers to an early 3-0 lead in the second set, but St. Ray’s weathered the storm. After the set was tied at 11-all, the Saints held a 22-15 edge that felt insurmountable.

During the 7-0 St. Ray’s run, Johnston head coach Greta Lalli called timeout to calm her team’s nerves. The message was clear: the Panthers were a team more than capable of maintaining a championship pedigree.

“In the huddle, we just reminded each other,” Lalli said. “The girls were talking to each other too, they were just trying to build themselves up. We’re champions, we’re division champions and we’re better than this. They just came back on fire. They knew we have a lot to look forward to.”

Brenna Guilmette answered the call for the Panthers, refusing to let the match devolve into a grinder of a marathon. She ignited an 8-0 run from the service line for the Panthers to take a 23-22 lead. Even after St. Ray’s rallied to take the 24-23 edge, there was little doubt Johnston would be able to climb out of the do-or-die hole unscathed.

After tying things up at 24-all to force a win-by-two situation, Alyssa Johnson got the kill on an emphatic spike to put the Panthers up by one. Guilmette put the finishing touches on the comeback herself with another big league kill to give Johnston a 26-24 second-set victory and more importantly, a 2-0 lead for the match.

“We needed our serves,” Johnson, a senior captain for the Panthers, said after the match. “Our serves win us games. We’re the team that people fear our serves, so when Brenna [Guilmette] came up and got two in a row, we just knew she had this. She was the one that got us that game.”

“One play gets them so pumped up,” Lalli added. “We just go from there; we use that momentum and it carries us far. We try very hard to keep those moments going.”

The third set was a tad anticlimactic, as the Panthers led wire to wire. St. Ray’s never got closer than a single point again after facing an 8-7 deficit, after which Johnston would turn the heat up for a 25-13 triumph.

“When we have the two sets [advantage], we have confidence,” Johnson said. “The third set is the set we have fun. When we play the best is when we have fun.”

The Panthers made very few communication errors over the course of the match, instead playing sound, fundamentally strong volleyball throughout. The few missteps were to be expected, Lalli said. The only important thing was that the team come back stronger from the mistakes.

“We had a couple of moments, but that’s expected,” Lalli said. “I would be nervous if they didn’t have a couple of nervous moments. But, they learned from them and they didn’t do it again. That’s all I can ask.”

Johnston’s victory secured it a spot on the title match on Saturday against Tiverton at East Providence High School. After dropping the first set, the Panthers evened things up against the Tigers with a 25-20 victory of set two. However, Tiverton would come through down the stretch, winning the third and fourth sets to secure a 3-1 victory and the Division III crown.

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