East Providence High senior Nicole Strik (18) is the center of attention as she unleashes a spike past two Coventry High players during Saturday nightâ€™s Division I title match at URIâ€™s Keaney Gymnasium. PHOTO BY ERNEST A. BROWN
KINGSTON â€” Ever since East Providence seized its last Division I state championship in 2005, the Townies have had an awfully difficult time climbing back to the top of the volleyball mountain.
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In fact, in four of the last seven years since that wonderful unbeaten season, the Townies have appeared in the state finals, only to come up short.
The first two of those four losses were five-set thrillers, and in their last title appearance, against Prout three seasons ago, the Townies played the Crusaders tough, only to lose in three competitive games.
And as for their most recent setback? That happened on Saturday night in the Towniesâ€™ title bout with defending champion Coventry at URIâ€™s Keaney Gymnasium, and it was a match E.P. would like to soon forget.
In a match that took just 55 minutes to complete, the Knotty Oakers played a near flawless brand of volleyball and took advantage of a number of errors by the Townies to net a 3-0 victory.
The first game was a 25-23 victory by the Oakers that saw the Townies rally back twice from big deficits, only to fall short in the end, but E.P. lost the last two games by ugly scores of 25-12 and 25-13 that saw them bring out some of their worst volleyball on the biggest stage of the season.
â€śI donâ€™t know where to start,â€ť said E.P. coach Alex Butler, whose team (now 15-4) had victories in nine of its last 10 matches. â€śIn the first game I thought we had too many service errors and net calls, and from there, it was like the air just let out of us. We couldnâ€™t pass, we couldnâ€™t serve. I felt like I wasnâ€™t watching my team.
â€śAnd this is hard because these kids fought hard to get here. They gave me everything that they had. But on some nights, you come out and you try to play, and it doesnâ€™t work. It just doesnâ€™t happen for you, and thatâ€™s what happened tonight.â€ť
The Oakers (now 17-2), a young team with just five seniors on their 16-player roster, seemed to be able to do no wrong, and the mistakes they made during the match were few and far between.
â€śCoventry played smart,â€ť added Butler. â€śThey kept the ball on the court, controlled the ball, and made very few errors, and we were never able to put the pressure on them by getting ahead. And thatâ€™s huge for them because they have younger players. You want them to go out and feel the pressure, but it just didnâ€™t happen tonight.â€ť
While the Townies struggled with their passing and serving, they also had some issues with their hitting. The Townies had as many kills (15, five from Nicole Strik and four from Mary Monagle) as they had hitting errors, and speaking of 15, thatâ€™s how many kills Oakers junior middle hitter Samantha Higgins collected by herself.
As was the case during Wednesday nightâ€™s 3-1 semifinal-round win over Prout, the Townies got off to a horrendous start in the first set, falling behind by deficits of 5-0 and 7-1. But the Townies righted the ship, came back with seven of the next nine points, and took their first lead, 14-13, on an ace by Strik.
But the Townies, who upped their lead to 16-14, hit another bad spell. Serving and passing errors helped the Oakers come back to rattle off 12 of the next 15 points and move to within a point of sealing the set. E.P. made things interesting by scoring four straight points, but Coventry finally scored its 25th point when an E.P. player at the net was called for a carry.
â€śYou canâ€™t get down 5-0, come back, and then serve two or three balls into the net,â€ť said Butler. â€śWe never, ever were able to get a consistent rhythm, and when that happens, it kills you.â€ť
The second set began with the same script as the first. The Oakers broke out to leads of 4-0, 8-1, and 11-4, but unlike the opening game, the Townies were never able to claw back. The Oakersâ€™ lead swelled to 15-6 and 18-8 and got as high as the 13-point final score.
With their backs firmly against the walls, the Townies did their best to avoid a slow start in the third game, and even though they quickly fell behind, 5-1, they bounced back to knot the score.
But the Townies were never able to claim the lead and avoid the straight-set sweep. The Oakers snapped the tie by rattling off 11 of the next 13 points, and aside from a mini four-point run, the Townies were never heard from again.
â€śYou look at those (last two) games, and I could have called ten time-outs and it wouldnâ€™t have mattered,â€ť said Butler. â€śIf you canâ€™t control the ball, pass the ball, and go back there and serve it with confidence, then youâ€™re giving them easy free balls, theyâ€™re running their offense, and itâ€™s like an avalanche. Once it starts, get out of the way.â€ť
This was indeed a very difficult loss for the Townies to absorb, and while Butler wasnâ€™t pleased with his teamâ€™s play, he was more upset with not being able to see his veteran team (nine seniors among its 14 players) have its season-long hard work pay off by celebrating the programâ€™s eighth state title.
â€śYou want it bad because itâ€™s the championship,â€ť said Butler, â€śbut you also want it bad because I have great kids on my team. I wanted them to experience this and I wanted them to be able to put a banner up on the wall, but it didnâ€™t happen. But we had a great season. I love those kids and Iâ€™d do anything for them.â€ť