NEWARK – Taylor Wright spent most of the evening of Nov. 13 on a mission to restore Ursuline to the top of Delaware’s high school volleyball pyramid. Whether through a swing of her powerful right arm or a timely block, the Raiders’ senior outside hitter put on a performance that will be long remembered.
Wright’s final act – after two-plus hours of sometimes nerve-wracking, always exciting volleyball – sealed the deal for the third-seeded Raiders. She came in from the left side, jumped one more time and sent a spike down the middle to lift Ursuline past top-seeded Padua, 15-11, in the fifth set. That gave the Raiders a 3-2 win and their 12th state championship in front of a full house and of 2,836 at the Bob Carpenter Center in Newark, a record for the volleyball final.
Set scores were 22-25, 25-19, 25-22, 25-20, and 15-11. Ursuline took home the championship trophy for the first time since 2009.
“This is huge for the school,” said coach Sue Heiss, who has now coached 11 state champions. “We’ve been close. Last year we were second with a really young team, and that helped. That set up this tonight. You have to be here to know how to react when you play. And my kids just played tonight.”
Getting off to a fast start in fifth sets is imperative because of their shortened length. Ursuline did that, with an Abby Rzucidlo ace giving the Raiders an 8-4 lead and prompting a Pandas timeout. Padua could not get any closer than three as the set proceeded, and the anticipation grew inside the arena. Pandas senior hitter Emily Jarome smashed one down to make it 12-9 Raiders, but Ursuline scored the next two on a booming kill off the right hand of Wright and an unforced error. Jarome saved two championship points, but Wright made sure the Pandas got no closer. She fell to her knees following the winner and was soon enveloped by her teammates.
“It feels like a dream,” Wright said. “It’s a great opportunity for the team to keep continuing that success going the next couple years.”
The Raiders entered the game with a record of 16-2, with their only losses coming against the Pandas. The first match went five sets, the second went four, so few among the crowd should have expected anything less on Monday night.
Padua got out to an early lead at 6-3 in the first set on a straight-down Jarome slam, but consecutive kills by Rzucidlo, Corinne Furey and Kylie Nocket tied the score. Furey gave the Raiders a 17-13 lead later on, but this time the Pandas responded with five straight. Jarome turned a one-point Padua lead into a win with kills for the final two points, the last one going through the Ursuline wall.
Power displays by Jarome and Wright highlighted the second set, but the Raiders used superior defense, both up front and on the back line, to gain some separation. They eventually took a six-point lead at 20-14 on a kill by Furey. Jarome cut that to two with a back-line attack that made it 21-19 Raiders, but Wright came through.
She started with a smash, then scored off a superb Raiders dig. An unforced Padua error took the score to 24-19, and Wright ended the set with a winner, although she was forced to work for her success.
“I had all these notes. I knew where to hit every single ball, but they played great defense, so it was tough finding those holes,” Wright said.
The third set was the closest of the night. The teams were tied 13 times, and the biggest lead of the frame was three points, which each team had once. Jarome and Wright again put on a show, with Jess Molen adding some highlight-reel kills for the Pandas, and the liberos – Padua’s Katie McGonigal and Ursuline’s Sam Davis – taking the leading role on the defensive end.
Jarome blasted one down the left sideline to give the Pandas an 18-16 lead, but she was blocked on the next point. Padua responded as Claire Bisson went cross-court and Jarome beat the Raiders’ wall with a dink, but that three-point advantage wouldn’t last. Cassidy Markel put the Raiders in front, 22-21, with a block of Jarome, and after the Padua standout evened it on the next point, Ursuline took a 2-1 set lead on two unforced errors sandwiched around a smash from Furey.
The black-clad Ursuline student section could sense a title, but the Pandas – backed by hundreds of their sisters wearing gold t-shirts – had other ideas. A four-point run, all kills by Jarome, gave Padua a 9-5 lead, but once again, the Raiders fought back. Wright went off the block to put Ursuline in front, 13-12, but the Pandas took the lead for good with a four-point run to make it 18-14. The set ended on an unforced error, setting the stage for the decisive race to 15.
In her final high school match, Jarome was all over the scoreboard, finishing with 41 kills and 15 digs. The Raiders, however, got to at least as many of her attempts, forcing the Pandas to alter shots to go over or around the defensive wall instead of through it. That was a key.
“Jarome is a fantastic hitter,” Heiss said. “We dug her up several times, but she got several hits, too. We were trying to throw them off-balance a little bit, but they’re an excellent team. They have excellent defense and excellent hitting. We kept after it. We played as a team and kept after it.”
Wright paced the Raiders on offense with 29 kills, and her effort did not go unnoticed. Davis has had a front-row seat to watch Wright for the past four seasons.
“Taylor is not only an outstanding player, she’s such a great teammate. She’s been so supportive throughout this entire four years. She’s been amazing. I’ve been so blessed to have her as my teammate,” Davis said.
Davis led the Raiders with 28 digs, while Markel had 23 and Wright 21. Furey added 21 kills, while Rzucidlo contributed four aces and four blocks. The Raiders finished the season at 17-2.
For the Pandas, who ended at 18-1, Molen had 16 kills and 21 digs. McGonigal dug 46 balls, while Michelle Kozicki added four blocks.