SOUTH KINGSTOWN — With an endless flow of bodies crashing to the floor and countless near-impossible saves, Ponaganset High never backed down from Coventry in the Division I finals.
Not one bit.
It just wasn't enough.
The Chieftains did everything in their power to dethrone I-South's top-seeded Knotty Oakers Saturday afternoon at Keaney Gymnasium. But in the end, it may have been the experience of a senior-laden Coventry squad that made the difference in a narrow, 3-2 win with scores of 24-26, 28-26, 25-17, 21-25, 15-11.
Prior to the finals, the Knotty Oakers lost a combined five sets all season. They were 14-0 during the league season.
“We knew going in that they were so confident,” Coventry coach Leo Bush said about Ponaganset. “They have a lot of heart. They are well-coached and have an unbelievable setter. They do a lot of things and are pretty dangerous with the ball. It's no upset that they were here today. They have been playing the best ball going into the tournament.”
Ponaganset, a No. 3 seed from the I-North, was trying to shock its second straight opponent in the playoffs. On Tuesday, the Chieftains defeated previously-unbeaten and the North's top seed Mount St. Charles, 3-1, in the semifinals.
“A lot of people were surprised about us getting here,” said PHS coach Sue Stevens, whose squad was 10-4 in the league. “I wasn't surprised. It's a very talented team. These girls play year round. They weren't intimidated by the venue. They were anxious to play and happy to show how well we could play against these top teams that were getting a lot of attention.”
With some early jitters that contributed to a few unforced errors, the Chieftains trailed the Oakers, 10-5, in the opener. But with a string of four straight points, including a kill and block by senior Sarah Gates (nine kills, eight blocks, ace), Ponaganset got right back into the game, taking its first lead at 14-13.
The two squads battled through some intense action with neither gaining more than an edge of three points the remainder of the game. Ahead by a score of 24-23, Coventry appeared to take the opener but was called on a net violation after an apparent block by senior Samantha Clark. That opened the door for the Chieftains, who scored the next two points, including a clinching ace by junior Ami Humphrey.
“The first game was a big psychological advantage,” Stevens said. “Going forward the rest of the match, having one under your belt. We were psyched. That was a crazy the way it ended with a net violation. I thought we lost it and then we won it. Most of the other games we played were really close.”
The Chieftains let a 15-11 lead slip away in the second game as they watched the Oakers rattle off nine unanswered points to take a five-point cushion (20-15). Ponaganset got itself back into the game with three straight points, bookended by an ace from senior Melissa Previte.
The Oakers had a chance for match point after a spike by senior Jenna Swanholm put them ahead, 24-21. The Chieftains responded with four straight points and twice came a point away from taking a 2-0 advantage. But leading, 26-25, Coventry tied up the match by scoring the final three points.
Deadlocked at 14 in the middle game, the Oakers took command by scoring the nine of the next 10 points and the Chieftains could get no closer than seven points the rest of the way.
“They just lost a little focus in that game,” Stevens said. “We had to re-focus our energies in the fourth set; re-focus on getting our serves in and passing and making some plays. I made a little bit of a lineup change...That worked pretty well for us coming back in the fourth game.”
The fifth-and-deciding game turned into a nail-biter. The Chieftains fell behind early, trailing by a score of 12-6. But after a pair of kills from Previite and another by junior Taylor Stevens (seven kills, five blocks, 34 assists), Ponaganset got right back into the match before the Oakers were able to clinch it in the closing stages.
The Chieftains, who also had three aces and 18 digs from senior Noelle Mioza, had a six-game winning streak ended with the setback. Along the way, they defeated Westerly and the South's No. 2 seed South Kingstown in the playoffs.
“It's no upset that they were here today,” Bush said. “They were playing their best ball of the year going into this tournament. It really wasn't a surprise seeing them today. I give them a ton of credit the way they battled us, especially being down two games to one and taking the fourth game convincingly. We are a pretty senior-heavy team and I think in the end our experience helped out a little bit. It's one of those days where I don't think there is any losers. It was just two great teams pushing it to the limit.”