MILLTOWN – Fifth-set magic and a spot in the DIAA volleyball state championship match were on the line Nov. 7 when Padua and Wilmington Friends met in the second semifinal. The fourth-seeded Pandas had needed five sets in both of their previous tournament tilts, but the No. 24 Quakers had them trumped, going the distance three times before this. The Pandas jumped out to an 11-4 lead in the fifth set and went on to a 15-9 win, edging the Quakers, 3-2, at Saint Mark’s High School.
Set scores were 25-16, 23-25, 25-20, 20-25 and 15-9. Padua earned a berth in the championship on Monday night at the Bob Carpenter Center. They will meet Saint Mark’s, who swept Ursuline in the other semifinal. The scheduled start time is 6:30.
Friends was trying to extend its Cinderella run through the tournament. The Quakers, champions of the Independent Conference, secured the final spot in the 24-team field, but the took care of ninth-seeded Smyrna in the first round, No. 8 Cape Henlopen in the second and top-seeded Newark Charter in the quarterfinals. All of those battles went the maximum number of sets.
The Pandas led this match, 2-1, but Friends rallied to tie with a 25-20 win in the fourth set. The Quakers took an early 4-0 lead in the fourth, but like the second and third sets, it would tighten up. Grace Palaypay got Padua on the board with a cross-court winner, and the Pandas rallied to tie the score at 6-6 on a Quakers hitting error. After that, it was nip and tuck, with 10 more ties. Mackenzie Sobczyk stood out for the Pandas, scoring on multiple blocks and kills during the set. Friends, behind do-it-all Abby Carian, hung close.
After Sobczyk put Padua in front, 16-15, with a bomb, Carian responded with a smash of her own, followed by a block that catapulted the Quakers back into the lead. But Palaypay tipped a winner, and after a hitting error on Friends, Peyton Sullivan delivered an ace to put the Pandas back on top, 19-17. Friends coach Barb Fitzgerald called a timeout, and her team scored the first four points out of the break, the final one on a big right arm from Carian.
Carian served an ace a few points later to give Friends the 23-20 lead, and they scored the next two on two Padua unforced errors. The final point would not have happened, however, without a saving dig from Mariah Aldridge.
The first point of the fifth set appeared to have been scored by the Quakers, but the referees conferred before reversing a call. That seemed to spark the Pandas, who went up, 3-0, on a Friends hitting error and a cross-court winner from Palaypay. The Quakers pulled to within 6-4 on a block from Jadyn Elliot, but, with Audrey Lyons on the serve, the Pandas scored the next six points. That run began with consecutive blocks by Molen and Sobczyk and also included an ace and a Meghan Peters block.
The Pandas’ lead remained at eight points at 13-5 before Friends scored three straight. But Peters stuffed an overpass to send it to match point, and after Carian saved once with a tip kill, Madison Wilhelm sent her team to the final with a kill following a long rally.
Padua began the match with a convincing nine-point win in the first. Kayla Farley of the Quakers was blocked out of bounds to make the score 13-11, but Padua responded. The Pandas scored eight of the next nine points, with Wilhelm’s blast down the right sideline getting it started. Molen had four kills during the run, the last one a spike of an overpass.
Friends answered in the second. The Pandas had an early 8-3 lead, which eventually grew to 15-9. But that’s when the Quakers clawed their way back into the match. They ran off six straight points to knot the score, with Carian, Kayla Farley and Camille DeBeary all contributing kills. The sides traded short scoring runs after that, and when Elliot went right to left on a spike, the Quakers led, 23-21. The Pandas tied it, but Carian scored on a bump, followed by a smash, to lift Friends.
A toe-to-toe third featured a bit of everything, particularly the great defense that was prevalent all night. This time, it was the Quakers who had the advantage, taking an 11-7 lead on a service error. But it was the Pandas’ turn to storm back. Palaypay tipped one for a point. Ireland Giaquinto served up consecutive aces, and Wilhelm tied it with a tip. Jackie Barnett’s tip put the Pandas in front, and Peters spiked one just inside the left sideline to complete a six-point run. The final two points of the set were another Wilhelm rejection and a Molen blast that followed two impressive saves by Colleen McClintock.
Molen had 19 kills to pace the Pandas. Sobczyk had 14, along with five blocks. Wilhelm, stepping in admirably for the injured Michelle Kozicki, had four blocks, as did Barnett. Giaquinto led the way with four aces, and Pritchard was all over the back line, collecting 40 digs. The Pandas improved to 15-3.
They split this season with Saint Mark’s. Each team had a sweep on its home court. The teams’ most recent tournament battle was in the semifinals two years ago, with the Pandas winning. Padua will be seeking its first title since 2013.
Final statistics for Friends were not available early Friday morning. The Quakers finished the season 13-7.