MILLTOWN – Charter School had Padua down, 2-0, in the first semifinal of the girls’ state volleyball tournament, and the Force was within four points of sweeping the two-time defending champion. But the Pandas fought back, taking a tough third and a dominating fourth set, to send the match to a fifth and deciding set.
It was a scenario Charter had not faced all year. The Force had lost just two sets total in their first 17 matches. Olivia DiMaio said her team needed to stay the course.
“Just take it point by point, don’t get ahead of ourselves and keep our heads right,” the senior hitter said.
It worked, as Charter (19-0) advanced to its first state final with a 3-2 (25-23, 25-22, 21-25, 14-25, 16-14) win over Padua on Thursday night at a jam-packed and electric St. Mark’s High School. They needed an extra point in the fifth, winning it when a kill attempt by Charter’s Liz Marcin was blocked out of bounds by the Pandas.
Charter threatened to make the fifth set a quick one, when a five-point run gave the Force a 7-2 advantage. But a kill by Pandas senior Stephanie Annone, who had 13 for the match, ended the run, and Padua (14-4) began its comeback.
The Force kept its lead at two or three points through a series of kills and unforced errors by both teams. Emily Jarome made it 11-9 with a kill, then a tip by the freshman brought Padua to within a point. DiMaio restored the two-point advantage with a monster kill, but Jarome answered. At 12-11, Charter committed an unforced error to tie things up, and fans of both teams either screamed louder or chewed their fingernails.
Padua and Charter were tied at both 13 and 14, but an unforced error by Padua gave Charter match point. They ended the match, and Padua’s reign, on the next point.
Annone said she was proud of her teammates for the way they responded down two sets. “We’re just trying to play strong as a team, minimizing the mistakes, playing the smartest we can, and just giving it our all.”
In the third set, that attitude helped them as Charter erased a 4-0 deficit. Padua maintained a small lead until the Force tied it at 13 on a kill by DiMaio. She followed with two more kills to give the Force a 15-13 lead, but Padua would not go away. The Pandas tied the score at 16, 17 and 18 before going ahead for good at 19-18 on a four-hit call against Charter. After the Force got to within 22-21, prompting Padua coach Lauren DiSabatino to call a timeout, the Pandas closed it out with the next three points, kills by Jarome and Annone, and a block by Gabriella Welsh and Annone.
The fourth set was all Pandas, as they busted out to a 7-0 lead. Charter was never closer than five points, as Padua dominated the entire way.
DiSabatino knew the Force would not come out in the fifth set the same way they looked in the fourth.
“They didn’t want to lose,” she said. “We needed to stay up. We needed to realize this was going to be a fight. This is something that we practiced a lot. We’ve been in that situation. We just had to focus on staying calm and playing the best volleyball we could.”
Annone said she is thrilled with the way her four years went at Padua, and she’s proud of how her team responded in the face of adversity Thursday night.
“We knew that we had to play our hardest to win this game, and I thought we did, but Charter put up an excellent game. They’re a strong team,” she said.
DiMaio led all players with 28 kills. Jarome had 19 for the Pandas, while Haley Baker added four kills and 12 digs, while Sarah Wiley had 41 digs. Complete stats were not available Friday morning.
Padua will play Delaware Military Academy in the consolation match Monday at 5 p.m. at the Bob Carpenter Center on the campus of the University of Delaware. Tickets to that match, which are also good for the final, are $8 and available at diaa.ticketleap.com. The Seahawks swept Padua during the regular season. This match will be a best of three.