KINGSTON -- It took Tolman 12 long seasons to get back to URI’s Keaney Gymnasium for a playoff match. It took Cranston West an hour and 45 minutes to end the Tigers’ bid for a berth in this weekend’s Division II finals.
Fueled by a dominant attack at the net, the Falcons earned their first trip to the finals since 2009 by overcoming an opening-set loss to defeat the Tigers, 3-1, and snap their impressive 10-match win streak in Thursday night’s semifinal-round match.
The Tigers, who along with the Falcons, were one of five Division II teams to post a 15-3 record during the regular season, won the first set, 25-20, only to watch the Falcons take the next three by scores of 25-15, 25-20, and 25-23.
And the key to the Falcons’ success was their dominant play up front. Senior hitters Ailis Hanley and Gianna Procaccini and junior hitter Courtney Lambrese teamed up to smack 42 kills.
“Cranston (West) got their offense going, we didn’t get our blocking scheme going, and they just got more confidence,” said Tolman coach Roger Tow. “They’re a good offensive team, and they were getting so confident that the ball must have looked like a watermelon to them.”
The Falcons will take on Division II-South rival and two-time defending champion Exeter/West Greenwich in Saturday’s 2:30 title match back at URI. The Scarlet Knights rolled to a 25-22, 25-15, 25-14 triumph over East Greenwich in the night’s earlier semifinal-round match.
The Tigers led throughout the opening set in their five-point triumph, leading by as many as six points on two occasions (21-15, 23-17) before clinching the match on an ace by Alison Oliveros that grazed the top of the net and fell among three Cranston West players.
But the roles were reversed in the second set, and that’s when the Falcons’ hitting assault came to life. Cranston West took charge right from the start, breaking out to leads of 8-4 and 10-5 and grabbing its first double-digit lead when a five-point run led to a 17-7 command.
In the third set, the Falcons again led throughout the contest, but only led by as many as five, as the Tigers played tough to stay within a handful of points of their opponent. The Tigers trailed by just two (22-20) before the Falcons responded with the next two points (the final two on aces) to sew up the game.
The fourth set started out as a carbon copy of the second, with the Falcons rolling out to 8-4 and 10-5 leads. But the Tigers clawed back and managed to claim a 15-14 lead on back-to-back aces by Oliveros, and from that point on, both teams battled for the lead.
The Tigers actually owned a 21-18 lead, but before anyone could look ahead to a fifth game, the Falcons came back with seven of the next nine points to seal the verdict.
“We had a shot in that last game,” said Tow, “but we just got a little tight at the end. That was a tough game to lose.”
Tolman senior outside hitter and co-captain Ana Espinal had a superb night in a losing cause, as she finished with 11 kills. Oliveros had five kills and three aces, Jacqueline Aguilera had a solid game setting, and the Tigers’ other senior co-captain, Karen Mejias, led the way defensively.
The loss was a bitter pill for the Tigers to digest, especially since it concludes an excellent season that saw them earn a share of the Division II-North championship with North Smithfield, roll off its double-digit win streak, and win 15 regular-season games for the first time in recent memory.
“It’s been a while since we had a season like this,” noted Tow, whose team last appeared in the then-tabbed Class B finals in 2000 and lost in five close games to Chariho. “We knew we could compete, even though (the South) was thought of as the better division, but we wanted to prove that we could play with them, and we did that tonight.
“I’m proud of the girls, and I told them that. They’re a great bunch and they played hard. The (final) result is not what I expected or wanted, but we did our best and we put it out there.”