KINGSTON — While her teammates arrived at Shea High to prepare for its trip to the University of Rhode Island's Keaney Gym to battle Mount Pleasant for the R.I. Division III Tournament title on Saturday morning, and again on the team bus, senior co-captain Kendra Vieira reminded the troops of three core philosophies to live by.
“First, I told them that it's not over 'til it's over,” she stated. “Second, I said, no matter what happens, we're going to walk out of there with our heads held high. And, third, we had to win it for 'Tati' (aka junior setter Itati DeBarros.) Today's her 16th birthday, and we wanted her to celebrate it with a state championship.”
The ever-so-ready Raiders more than obliged. Vieira led her squad in kills with 12 and DeBarros manufactured a season-high 29 assists as fourth-seeded Shea stunned the third-ranked Kilties, 3-0, before perhaps 100 fans at Keaney.
Just 16 days before, on Oct. 24, head coach Chris Daily's crew had played horribly in a 3-0 loss to MP at “The Cage.” In fact, the Raiders also dropped a 3-2 decision to their “finals' foe” on Sept. 25.
“We had some tough opponents toward the end of the season, and one of them was Johnston on the road,” Daily noted while her players hugged and hollered behind her. “We ended up winning that match, but then we lost the next three to finish the year.
“I think it was more of a mental lapse than anything,” she added. “I think the girls were thinking ahead before the playoffs had even started. But then we played really well against (top-ranked) Johnston (in Thursday night's semifinal, a 3-1 win, at the Panthers' home venue), and played even better (Saturday).
“As far as I'm concerned, it all came down to teamwork. The kids all did their jobs, and everyone contributed, everyone communicated. I can't tell you how proud I am of all of them.”
Stated Athletic Director Ray McGee while Rhode Island Interscholastic League Director of Girls' Volleyball handed out the individual gold medals to the new state champs: “They just peaked at the right time. You know, they lost the final three matches of the season, but nobody hung their heads. I give them a lot of credit.
“Shea was down in volleyball for a lot of years, but that's because of the division we were playing in,” he continued. “We were playing in Division II, and we were a relatively new program facing teams who had been around a long time. We and some other schools – like Central, Mount Pleasant and Hope – kept fighting for the Interscholastic League) to reinstate D-III. This is the first year they went back to it, and look what happens.
“It turns out, this was a very competitive division all season long. I'm just happy for the kids. This is a great group of girls.”
With the triumph, the Raiders not only finished its season at 13-6 (10-6 in league), but also snatched its first state volleyball crown since 2006.
Still, it didn't come easy, as the Kilties fought tooth-and-nail in the initial game. They actually led, 24-23, on senior outside hitter Kunem Piseth's serve, but Vieira slammed a kill to knot it, then served up an ace before an unforced error gave Shea the 26-24 decision.
“After that first one, our confidence grew a lot,” Vieira claimed. “That's when we started thinking we could win the whole match.”
The second game saw the two combatants force six ties and four lead changes. MP had led 10-9, but a Vieira spike knotted it for the last time at 10-all, and senior Jennifer DaSilva served up three straight points to give the Pawtucketers a 13-10 advantage.
With junior Nancy Lee serving, the Kilties sliced their deficit to 16-15, but sophomore Carol Rodriguez drilled a kill down the line, then notched four service points as Shea cushioned its lead to 21-15.
Following a serve into the net, senior co-captain Alliyah Phin recorded a trio of her own to cut it to 22-19, but an unforced miscue gave the serve back to the Raiders.
Senior Iussara Ferreira served the penultimate point, one in which senior Cassandra Xiong couldn't handle a dig, but junior Maria Ogundolani mustered a dink to bring MP back to 24-20.
Shea snatched the second, 25-20, when officials whistled Piseth for touching the net.
The Kilties mustered the first point in the third game when DeBarros' spike failed to clear that net, but the Raiders immediately caught fire. With senior co-captain Taylah Logan stationed at the service line,
Shea rattled off 10 straight points – seven of them on unforced errors – to gain a 11-1 cushion, and that caused MP head coach Ka Men to call a timeout.
It worked wonders, as his group stopped unraveling and got itself back into the match, cutting the lead to 14-7.
Senior co-captain Vannada Prak assembled a service string of three straight points, and Piseth did the same to get the Kilties back within four at 18-14.
At 20-15, after Logan registered a dink off a block, that same girl who had started the game with 10 consecutive points started anew. She ripped an ace and chipped in two more before a Shea unforced miscue gave it back to MP at 23-16. On Carol Rodriguez' serve, the referees called Phin for a carry, then posted match point on a rocket off a flinching Kiltie.
Seconds later, the lone two Raiders on the bench, not to mention Daily and assistant Carl McCurdy, flocked to the Keaney floor to celebrate.
“I can't say enough about Taylah,” Daily grinned later of her senior left-side hitter, who had amazingly recorded 13 service points in the last game alone. “Her serve was just awesome.
“I kept telling the girls, 'You can win this, but you have to do it for yourselves,'” she added. “I told them not to do it for me, or thee fans, but just for the eight girls on this team.”
She paused, then chuckled, “They gave me a lot of headaches along the way. I know that, sometimes, I can be tough on them, but there were a lot of laughs, too.”
Then there was the “Birthday Girl”.
“The thing about this team is that we we're more like a family,” DeBarros smiled. “The last couple of years, we weren't that way. We'd go to practice or games and that's it; we never hung around with each other. This season, we'd eat lunch together, go bowling and talk on the phone. We became much closer, more tight.
“That's a big reason why we won this.”
She was asked if “Sweet 16” could've been much much sweeter?
Her response: “No way!”