KINGSTON – The match was ugly, but to East Providence, the end result was a thing of beauty.
The Townies nailed down their ninth victory in their last 10 matches on Wednesday night in one of their most important matches of the year – their Division I semifinal-round matchup with the Prout School at URI’s Keaney Gymnasium.
In a tightly-contested match that saw neither side bring out its best brand of volleyball, it was the Townies who shook off an opening-set defeat to down the Division I-South champion Crusaders, 3-1, and earn its first berth in the championship match in three years.
The Townies, who improved to 15-3, will face defending state champion Coventry (a 3-2 winner over Mount St. Charles in the other semifinal) in Saturday’s 5 p.m. finals back at URI.
The Townies won their regular-season meeting with the Oakers (16-2) back on Oct. 3 at E.P. by a 3-1 score, but as far as E.P. head coach Alex Butler is concerned, that match is ancient history.
“I think both teams have kind of moved on from that match,” he remarked. “I’m looking forward to an exciting match on Saturday.”
And Butler also hopes to see a better-played match by his team, which on most nights, may have lost this match, but with the Crusaders also struggling with their play, played well enough to win and grab a chance to win its first state title since 2006.
“There were just so many errors on both sides,” added Butler. “Just a lot of service errors, hitting errors, ball-handling errors. I thought both teams played well for stretches, but then there were a lot of sloppy plays that were out there.
“But you never apologize for a win. The cream has to rise to the top. We did that for tonight, but now we’ll go back and have two more days of practice, and Saturday, we’ll come down, play it out, and see how it goes.”
The Crusaders (16-2) were a 25-23 winner in the first set, but after the Townies won a nailbiter of their own in the second game, 25-22, they ripped Prout in the third, 26-16, and sewed up the match by taking a 25-22 thriller in the fourth.
And aside from the start of the first set and the back half of the third set, leads of more than three points were few and far between on this night.
The Townies got off to a horrendous start in the opening game, falling behind quickly by an ugly 9-1 score that forced Butler to call a time-out. But when play resumed, his team did a turn for the better and came back to take an 18-17 lead.
“We probably started six or seven matches like that,” said Butler. “I told the kids, ‘I’m not going to overreact to that. It’s simple. You have to be able to pass the ball, you can’t serve the ball into the net, and you can’t play balls that are going out of bounds.’ You do that, you give them points, and when that team is ahead, they’re very, very good and they’re tough to stop.”
The rest of the game was a tug-of-war duel until the Crusaders snapped a 23-23 draw by scoring the next two points.
The competitiveness at the end of the first set carried over into the second and saw both squads trade the lead early and often. But the Townies broke an 18-18 tie with four straight points and held off a small comeback by the Crusaders to win the game.
It was midway through the third set when the Townies took the momentum of the match. Down by a point (15-14) in a seesaw battle, E.P. rattled off five straight points, and after Prout got back on the board, the Townies put away Crusaders off with the next six points, three on service aces by Mary Monagle and two on back-to-back kills by Lindsee Allienello.
In the fourth set, the Townies saw a 9-4 lead slip away when the Crusaders scored the next six points. E.P. came back to tie the score, and from that point on, the set was a royal battle.
But with the score knotted at 22-22, the Townies pulled away. A kill by Leah Drolet (that was immediately followed by a time-out by Prout) gave E.P. the lead and a kill by Monagle finished the match.
Three seniors that Butler praised in his post-match remarks had big nights, as Allienello led the Townies with nine kills and 13 digs, Nicole Strik had eight kills and three blocks, and Lucianna Medici came back from a subpar effort in E.P.’s quarterfinal-round win over North Kingstown to deliver eight digs, three aces, and some strong passing.
And four other seniors also played well, starting with setter Izzy Newton, who also dished out 28 assists, and continuing with Leah and Hannah Drolet and Monagle.
“I talked about this in August with all the seniors,” added Butler, referring to playing for a state title. “I said, ‘The season ends on Nov. 10. There’s no reason why we can’t be (in the finals), and there’s no reason why we can’t be there holding the trophy.’ But Saturday, they have to go out there and earn it. No one’s going to give it to them.”