JOHNSTON — Shea High head coach Chris Daily and assistant Carl McCurdy find it rather strange how their Raiders play so well on the road but are inconsistent at best at their own arena, “The Cage.”
During the course of the Division III regular season, they managed only a 4-4 mark at home, but compiled a 6-2 record in foreign gymnasiums.
When they discovered they'd have to travel to top-seeded Johnston for a R.I. Division III Tournament semifinal, the Raiders' entourage felt encouraged on two counts: First, that mark when they have to take the bus, and – second – how they had manufactured a 3-1 upset triumph over the Panthers on their own Robert A. Smith Court back on Friday, Oct. 19.
“For some reason, we just don't play well at home; I don't think the girls know why, except maybe they have so many fans in the stands screaming for them to do well,” McCurdy stated.
Amazingly, Daily's fourth-ranked crew found a way to again silence the fans at Smith Court on Thursday night. It stunned Johnston with another 3-1 victory, and now will face Mount Pleasant for the D-III state championship at high noon Saturday at the University of Rhode Island's Keaney Gym. With the 25-23, 18-25, 25-21, 25-18 decision, the Raiders pushed their record to 12-6 overall, while the Panthers' season came to a premature close at 15-3.
“We've changed our defense since the first time we met them,” Daily stated of a 3-1 loss, naturally at home, back on Sept. 20. “I noticed we weren't getting our hands on any blocks, and they were able to find the holes between those hands.
“What we did was pull our blockers back off the net, and placed our setter alone up front for a possible block,” she continued. “We decided to play more of a full-court defense, and it's helped. I thought it helped us against Johnston the last time, and I thought it helped again (Thursday night).
“I just thought we played well defensively. We did have some times where we had collisions, or we weren't communicating as well as we should have, but we didn't make as many mistakes (as their opponent).”
McCurdy noted that, after winning that second match against the Panthers, Shea dropped three straight to end the regular campaign; it sandwiched 3-0 losses to Mount Pleasant and Central around a 3-1 verdict to Masters Regional at “The Cage.”
In this semifinal against Johnston, junior co-captain Kendra Vieira earned eight kills, while classmate and setter Itati DeBarros mustered 25 assists and an ace. Senior Iussara Ferreira added three aces and sophomore Carol Rodrigues two.
As for Johnston, sophomore Dana Desmarais and junior Alex DiRaimo shared the team-high in kills with eight, while the latter recorded a pair of blocks and the former three aces.
In the first game, Shea battled through nine ties and three lead changes to grab a tight 25-23 win; the final two points came on a Vieira kill and a stellar Vieira serve that couldn't be handled.
Thanks to the services of senior co-captain Taylah Logan and Rodriguez, the Raiders built advantages of 8-2 and 14-8 in the second game before Johnston fought back to tie it for the first time at 14-14 on DiRaimo's serve. In fact, seconds later, Desmarais blocked a shot to give Johnston its first lead at 15-14.
Thanks to two Shea unforced errors and junior Victoria Parente's and Desmarais' serves, the Panthers gained a 23-18 cushion, then rolled to a 25-18 triumph when the visitors failed to communicate on a pass.
With the score 1-1 in the third, Logan rattled off four straight points with her serve for the 5-1 lead, but the Panthers roared back again, eventually tying it for the fourth time at 16-16 on Parente's serve. In fact, her ace made it 19-16, Johnston, but the Raiders regained the advantage at 23-19 courtesy of Itati DeBarros' six straight service points.
Ferreira's unforced miscue helped the home team cut it to 24-20, but sophomore setter Francesca Gaudiana's serve into the net closed that game at 25-21.
In the finale, Johnston garnered an early 6-4 cushion, then extended it to 13-10 before the Raiders started to rally. After a Gaudiana block tied it for the eighth time at 17-17, senior Jennifer DaSilva recorded an ace on her first serve, then manufactured five consecutive points for the 24-17 lead.
DaSilva then knocked her seventh into the net, but Vieira appropriately ended it with her final kill of the net.
That set off a mad dash to Daily and McCurdy, who were ready with plenty of post-match hugs.
“Basically, when Johnston came back in those games, we stopped playing our own game and were watching them,” Daily said. “They woke up, and we went to sleep. We stopped playing the way we know how.
“But then we woke up, and we started to take advantage of their unforced errors.”
Offered lone sophomore Rodriguez: “We put everything we had into this match. We poured our hearts into it. Even though we lost one game, we kept our heads up and tried to play smart. We just managed not to let as many balls reach the floor.
“This feels great!” she added. “We haven't won a state championship since 2006, and that's a long time. We have to bring one back to Shea.”