NEWARK – Zoe Akoto had a host of important points this season for Archmere Academy, none more so than the two that ended the 2014 state volleyball championship final against the Charter School of Wilmington. First, with the fourth set in extra points and the score tied at 27, Akoto painted the sideline with a smash. Then, leading 28-27, on match point No. 4 inside the raucous Bob Carpenter Center, Akoto again had an open lane down the left side.
The sophomore returned the push kill with one of her own. A few Force players threw themselves in the direction of the ball, but the kill found the floor, and fifth-seeded Archmere completed the mild upset of undefeated and second-seeded Charter, 3-1, for the championship. The sets were 25-10, 16-25, 26-24 and 29-27.
The third and fourth sets were in stark contrast to the first two, as the Auks and Force were neck-and-neck nearly the entire way. Archmere (15-4) came from behind late in both the third and fourth to claim the win.
A fifth set was looming after a five-point run by Charter (18-1) gave the Force a 23-18 lead in the fourth. The final point of that run came on one of several aces by Charter senior Liz Marcin, whose jump serve was outstanding all night. The large contingent of Charter students, who filled one end of the Bob Carpenter Center, could smell a victory and a final, 15-point set. But Archmere showed the same resiliency that brought them back from a 2-0 deficit in the semifinal round against Delaware Military Academy.
Sami Mengers ended the Charter run with a kill, and then the Auks turned up the defense. Emily Dentinger blocked Taylor Regan, and Mengers and Regan Bice teamed up to stuff Kristen Edmiston. Like their counterparts from Charter, the black-clad students from Archmere roared their approval. After a Force timeout, Dentinger contributed a kill, and an unforced error knotted the score at 23. An Archmere kill was blocked out of bounds, giving the Auks match point No. 1. But this was far from over.
Charter tied it at 24 and 25 before an ace by Kelsey Mayhew gave the Force set point at 26-25. But Archmere tied it on a tip kill by Bice, and match point No. 3, at 27-26, came when she and Justine Pantaleo teamed up to block another shot. Olivia DiMaio evened it once more, at 27, with a kill, but Akoto hit the first of those final shots to put her team up, 28-27, with its final match point. This time, the Auks would not be denied.
After Akoto’s second consecutive kill, the match-winner, the Auks raced to their schoolmates and went into the bleachers to celebrate with them. Mengers said the championship is “a huge deal” for the Claymont school.
“This is just so amazing,” she said. “We worked so hard for this the whole year. Obviously, the whole school was excited, and we all just came together. With the help of our fans, and our team and our coaches, we just did it.”
Archmere coach Mary Pat Kwoka said she and her staff watched countless hours of Charter matches in preparation for the final, making a few adjustments to defend Marcin and DiMaio, the Force’s dynamic duo.
“They have some outstanding players, some of the best players in the state. We had to be a step ahead of them, and that was the only way we were going to get a shot to compete with them. And the kids played with heart and intestinal fortitude and just plain guts,” Kwoka said.
Archmere libero Tori Falasco said the key was carrying out the game plan the coaching staff had laid out for the players. “It’s an honor to play against Charter. They’re such an amazing team. But you just have to get in your zone and read that hitter to the best of your abilities and just try to focus as best you can.”
Archmere was helped by the knowledge it gained from playing Charter earlier in the season, a 3-0 loss. It was Pantaleo’s first match of the season after missing the first half of the season with an injury.
“We just knew to go after Olivia, block her and cover her, just play like we know how to play,” Pantaleo said.
Just as impressive as the late comeback in the fourth set was a similar effort in the third. Charter had an early four-point lead, thanks in part to big kills from DiMaio and Regan, but the Auks tied it at 12 on a kill by Dentinger. The teams were tied at 20 when Charter threatened to take a one-set lead. A kill by Marcin off two Auks gave the Force a 24-21 lead, prompting Kwoka to call a timeout. Archmere got one back on an unforced error, then Maddie Guido took the serve.
A kill attempt by Charter was long, making it 24-23. Charter was then called for a double hit, tying the score. The Auks cranked up the defense for another block to give them set point, and Christina DeFelice wrapped up the win in the third with a kill that the Force touched but could not control.
Pantaleo said the Auks never lost confidence in that set, even as they faced three set points. “I kept saying to myself, we can do this. I know we can do this.”
The first two sets stood in stark contrast. Archmere went ahead early, playing nearly flawless volleyball in the first as the Auks stunned Charter with a 25-10 win. Akoto scored the final three Auks points of that set on kills. Charter tied the match with a 25-16 triumph in the second. After Archmere got to within 19-16, Force coach Dave Stover called a timeout, then watched as his team scored the final six points. Marcin sandwiched two kills around an ace by Victoria Kingsley to close that one out.
Mengers and Akoto led the way with 13 kills each, while Mengers added 26 digs. Bice had 11 kills and 10 blocks. Falasco led the defense with 28 digs, while Guido contributed 15. Marcin and DiMaio each had 14 kills for the Force, while Gabrielle Jabbour led the way with 24 digs.
This was Charter’s first appearance in the finals, but for Archmere, it was a more familiar feeling. Pantaleo was a freshman on the 2011 team that lost to St. Mark’s on the same court.
“Freshman year, I was here, and I sat the bench. I wasn’t really expecting to play. It was sad, leaving here and not winning,” she said. “And now, it’s our senior year, and we won. I’m so proud of my team.”
Kwoka said her team faced some challenges this season, including injuries and the loss of experienced players to graduation. She laid them out for her team before the season started, and the players responded.
“At the beginning of the season, I said, ‘Ladies, we have a mountain to climb, and it’s a tall one. We’ll go as the seniors take us, and we’ll take one step at a time. You’ve got to trust yourselves, you’ve got to trust each other, and you’ve got to trust the coaching staff because we’re going to give you what you need to succeed.’”
Apparently, the message was received.