PAWTUCKET — St. Raphael Academy head coach Linley Pullem's post-game synopsis of her squad's overall performance was very simply put.
The Saints had just sustained a 3-0 Division III-North loss to Johnston High at the Alumni & Wellness Center late Monday afternoon, and she admitted she saw flashes of brilliance coupled with moments of complete disarray.
“We just need to be more consistent,” she stated.
On this day, SRA squandered three-point cushions in each of the three games, but watched them evaporate due to the Panthers' superior serving.
Johnston used its service to claim the 25-17, 25-19, 25-19 triumph, and in the process improve to 5-1 in III-North action. The Saints fell to 3-3, despite six digs, five aces, two kills and a block from senior co-captain Marissa Botelho. Fellow senior co-captain Julyssa Tavares chipped in four kills.
“As soon as they started serving really hard, the girls kind of shied away from the ball, and I don't know why,” Pullem noted after a chat with her girls. “It didn't seem like they wanted to move to go after it. Sometimes when we played the ball well, we did a good job, but we weren't as consistent as we should've been.”
For the Panthers, junior Katherine Rocha closed with seven kills, while classmate Angela Gallucci mustered five aces and four strong hits. Another junior, Dana Desmarais contributed five more aces, and senior setter Erin Tvenstrup “had a lot of beautiful sets and service points,” stated mentor Greta Lalli.
“Our serving was terrific,” she offered following the shutout. “We were much more consistent in that area than in the past. The jitters are leaving the girls quicker, and their heads are getting into the game earlier than they had been.
“I think that was probably the best serving match we've had all season,” she added. “I thought it kept them off-balance. We had the same kind of serving when we faced Rogers back on Friday, but I thought St. Ray's defended it better than (the Vikings) did.”
The hosts opened the first game with an ace, courtesy of junior Alyana Saab, and two more by Botelho opened up a 4-1 lead. Three ties later, a Botelho block and two service points by junior Samantha Aspinwall gave the Saints an 11-8 advantage.
Johnston junior Alexis Tavares, however, used her serve (including a pair of aces) and three SRA unforced errors to garner six straight points and snag a 15-11 lead. Desmarais increased that cushion to 18-12 with two points off her serve, and Gallucci manufactured five consecutive points (thanks to a pair of Rocha spikes) to turn it into a 24-13 advantage.
SRA junior Maureen Doyle helped cut into that lead with three points, though Rocha's soft kill just inside the end stripe gave the Panthers the 25-17 win.
Pullem's bunch ran out to a 4-0 lead in the second game, but the visitors fought their way back to tie it for the first time at 4-4. After a total of eight deadlocks and eight lead changes, however, the Panthers slowly pulled away.
With the score 21-18, Rocha ripped a kill off the cord, and Saints' junior Emerald Clarke's dig proved to be too strong and sailed out of bounds. After officials called a Saint for clipping the net, Rocha's serve was dug by sophomore Alicia Drape and soared past the sideline for the 25-19 loss.
Throughout the initial two sets, the serves of Desmarais, Gallucci, Tavares and senior Victoria Parente not only were drilled like line drives, but also knuckled (as in retired Red Sox hurler Tim Wakefield's flutterer). On several occasions, the SRA defense didn't respond as quickly as Pullem had hoped.
As for what proved to be the final game, the Saints again rolled to a 6-1 lead, thanks to service points from Botelho and Doyle. Johnston battled back to knot it three times, the last at 10-10 when Gallucci fired a near-kill off a defensive arm.
She regained the lead at 11-10 for the Panthers when a Saint was called for being in the net, and that happened to be the first and only lead change in that decisive game.
Rocha served up three points and Tavares two more to make it 19-12. A knock into the net and a Botelho kill knifed the deficit to 19-14, but Parente managed three points before SRA junior Ashley Simmons delivered a wicked kill to slice it to 23-17.
Johnston nevertheless sealed the match with a spike from Gallucci, and her own kill off an opposing dig on the final point.
“Our serves were better than they were against Juanita Sanchez (a 3-0 defeat on Thursday),” Pullem mentioned. “Once we get the ball up into the air, then we can set it and do some (positive) things. We just lacked communication as to where the ball should go and when.
“Our hits have improved as well,” she added. “I'd say we've grown a lot since last year; the overall effort has changed. They're moving for the ball and reacting instead of just watching it. The passing is improved, too, but we still have some work to do.”