SOUTH KINGSTOWN — Sixteen times this season, defending state champion Exeter/West Greenwich has faced an opponent in Division II. Sixteen times, it has won handily.
No. 17 proved to be it toughest.
Seeking its first team crown in the school's history Saturday at Keaney Gymnasium, No. 3 seed Cumberland battled the top-seeded Scarlet Knights to a five-set thriller in the state finals before succumbing to scores of 22-25, 25-16, 21-25, 25-20 and 15-10.
“It was a great match for our girls,” said CHS coach Sherri Heard, whose squad copped II-North at 12-2. “I keep saying it's the best they played all year. Every time I see them play it seems like they get so much better every time. The five seniors, they left it on the court and you could tell. We came out on the wrong end, but they should be proud of what they did today. They accomplished a lot.”
The senior trio of Micaela LeBlanc (10 kills, 11 digs, two aces), Michelle Malboeuf (five digs) and Sarah Spearan (19 assists, two blocks, kill) and junior Sam Bertherman (14 digs, two blocks, kill) led the charge for the Clippers, who became the first squad to take the Scarlet Knights to the limit this year.
Exeter/West Greenwich posted 14 shutouts in the Division II ranks, including a blanking of No. 8 seed Pilgrim in the quarterfinals.
“(Cumberland) played absolutely great,” E/WG coach Josh Bednarczych said. “They were relentless. They didn't let balls drop. They wanted us to make all the mistakes. They forced us to do that quite a bit. It was a great volleyball match. Not seeing them this year, I didn't know a whole heck of a lot to expect, but that's a great team on the other side. They made us earn every point. I think we made them earn every point. That's a good team.”
The Clippers looked confident in the opening game and took a commanding 22-13 lead. Exeter/West Greenwich made it interesting by scoring eight of the next nine points to get within two at 23-21 before the Clippers were able to finish the job.
“Against a team like E/WG, that's everything,” said Heard about the opening-game win. “They are such a great team that if we were to let them win that first game our momentum might not have been there. It did, and it was there and luckily we were able to carry it all the way to the fifth game.”
After the Scarlet Knights tied things up in the second game, Cumberland got back on track. The Clippers took a 23-17 advantage and then held off E/WG down the stretch. A key in the middle game was the up front work of Leblanc and Malbouef.
In the see-saw battle, the Scarlet Knights broke a 19-all game by scoring six of the last seven points to even the match at two games apiece.
Cumberland held the early advantage in the deciding game. But after taking an 11-8 lead, Exeter/West Greenwich was able to notch its second straight title by commanding the late stages. Tourney MVP Taylor Matook spurred the rally by nailing the final three points on a block and back-to-back kills.”
Heard was not surprised her Clippers were playing on the big stage this season. Last year, Cumberland finished 11-3 with most of its players back on the floor this fall campaign.
“I knew we had talent,” she said. “We did last year as well. It just comes down to this year we put all the pieces together. This team, this year, they wanted it. The chemistry they had is what carried them the whole way.”
“I told the girls they should not be hanging their heads low.,” she continued. “They should be proud of what they did today and they gave everything they had.”