PIKE CREEK – Maddie Matheny of Wilmington Charter swung her right arm, sending the volleyball back toward Padua with a trip to the state championship on the line. The Pandas’ defenders got their hands on the ball, but on its trip back over the net, the ball hit the antenna. The referee extended his left hand toward the Force, and the Charter students who made the trip to St. Mark’s on Nov. 8 rushed the floor.
That’s because that was match point for the fourth-seeded Force, who took down the top-seeded Pandas in four sets in the second semifinal of the evening. Set scores were 22-25, 25-18, 25-13, and 30-28.
As expected, the match started out close and stayed that way throughout the first set. Padua used the entire lineup to take an early 9-5 lead. Michelle Kozicki started the evening with a block of Matheny. Jess Molen sent a winner crosscourt, Jackie Barnett found a hole in the middle of the defense, and Grace Palaypay went deep down the middle.
The Force fought back, and the teams were tied at 12 when Christina Marcin blew one down the center. Padua scored the next three points, only to see the Force equalize. The Pandas scored the next five, the final one of those a straight-down kill from Mackenzie Sobczyk. The Force got as close as two points on four occasions, but Sobczyk ended the first by crushing a kill.
Charter, whose last loss came to Padua in its fourth match of the season, cranked up its stellar defense into the second set, frustrating the Pandas, who struggled to find open spots all night. Meanwhile, the Force deployed a diverse offense, feeding the ball to all of their hitters, not just the all-stater Matheny. Early on, it was Dani Waltz, and Corinna Bialecki stepped up late. She kissed the end line with one kill that made it 19-12, and she added one a bit later that put the Force up, 23-17. Mallory McCormick’s ace gave Charter seven set points, and while the Pandas saved one, an unforced error ended the set.
While the second set was relatively close, Charter was not fooling around in the third. The Force got up early and did not let up. Padua struggled to find any holes in the Charter defense, and an early six-point run put the Force up, 11-3.
Only after Madeline Austria’s ace gave Charter an 18-7 lead did the Pandas score their first offensive point. Padua picked up a few points before the set ended, but it wouldn’t be nearly enough.
With their season on the line, Padua came out and played much better in the fourth. The teams were back and forth, and the biggest lead for either team was three points. The final one of those came at 19-16 when Sobczyk pushed a winner to the far right corner.
Bialecki got the first one of those back for the Force, and her blast off the Pandas’ wall pulled the force to within one at 20-19. An unforced Padua error tied the set, one of 16 in the fourth. They were tied again at 21 and 22 before a service error and a Matheny kill had Charter at match point. Padua saved the first two on a Molen kill and a hitting error. The Pandas had it at set point three times, but the Force were able to fend those off. Charter got to match point at 28-27, but a service error tied the match.
Freshman Isabel Lugar ignored the tension inside St. Mark’s and threw one down, setting up Matheny’s final attempt, which the Pandas could not return.
Final statistics were not available as of Friday morning. Charter improved to 16-2 with its 14th straight win. They will battle Archmere for the state championship on Monday at approximately 7 p.m. at the Bob Carpenter Center in Newark. The Auks defeated the Force, 3-1, in the second match of the regular season on Sept. 13.
The Pandas fell to 15-3 and will meet Ursuline in the consolation match at 5:30 p.m. Monday.