Frontier Stymies Lee in Western Mass Final
WEST SPRINGFIELD, Mass. - The Lee Wildcats returned to the Western Mass championship for the third consecutive year against the Frontier Redhawks on Saturday determined to finally take the title from the defending champions.
But once again the top-seeded Redhawks proved too lethal on the frontline, as Frontier swept its way to the title by scores of 25-16, 25-13 and 32-30.
“We started off too slow and our serve percentage was about 70 percent, when normally it is about 90 percent, which was certainly an Achilles heel against a team like this,” Lee coach John Warner said. “They are an offensive team with two big hitters and a decent libero, and they hide all of their weaknesses. They are a proficient team.”
It came as no surprise that the top two teams in Western Mass. met for the third straight year in the Division III championship. The Wildcats (13-5) took Frontier to five sets in a home match during the season, and they came into the title game looking to build off the lessons learned in that meeting.
“We knew what we were coming up against, and we ultimately knew that we could give them a challenge,” senior Bailey Thomas said. “We watched film the other day in practice to help us remember and know who to serve to and who not to serve to, and how to make us play better.”
The Redhawks turned the tables on those plans by taking immediate control in all three sets. Frontier (21-2) opened play with a 6-0 run, then took it to a 9-1 advantage that forced Coach Warner to use his first timeout very early in the action.
“That is a difficult hole to come back from,” Warner said. “They get a lead and then they start to get comfortable with that lead, and that is a difficult thing to overcome in the game of volleyball.”
Lee responded to get back into things and pull within 10-6, thanks in large part to some big defensive plays from senior Anna Wong and junior Suriana Lee.
Warner noted that Wong is the best libero in the area, a collegiate-caliber athlete that Frontier did its best to serve away from. Wong certainly played up to that compliment on Saturday, as her 13 digs led the defense, with several big plays coming to help halt the streaky Redhawks. She added four service points with two aces to chip in offensively.
“I think the biggest challenge for us as a team was the energy was not as much as it was against Mount Greylock, so that was a big obstacle to go over,” Wong said, referring to the team’s semi-final victory over the Mounties. “Frontier’s hits are more challenging because they are more down, and our blocks just weren’t there. It made it hard on the defense.”
Despite rallying back into each of the first two sets, the Wildcats were unable to close the gap. Down by two and with their backs to the wall, the girls delivered their finest effort for the third pivotal set. After again falling behind at the onest, Lee continued to grind back to keep things tight, pulling within 7-6 following a block putback from senior Jayla Speers.
“That third set was more reflective of the play that we were consistently engaged in all year,” Warner said. “Once we got into our system and developed a little rhythm, we could play with them.”
After a bit of tug-of-war for control, sophomore Erin Brisebois blocked one back over the net to tie things up at 22-22. Lee then took its first lead of the day on a Frontier miscue.
“It was just a lot of adrenaline rushing through everybody at that point,” Thomas said. “I think we honestly play better under pressure, and that was what motivated us to keep going. It was just really thrilling and I am happy that we got there.”
The scoring seesawed from there as both sides fought for control to finish it out. The Wildcats pulled a point ahead once more on a service ace from Suriana Lee, but were unable to tally the final necessary blow that would have forced another set.
“The girls fought hard in that third set, and we lived up to our seed expectation as a two seed. But we were a little off with our passes tonight and the serve percentage wasn’t there,” Warner said. “This is a band of misfits that seems to give teams fits with our style of play. They are a scrappy, scrappy bunch and it is a sad moment when you say goodbye to the seniors. But it is a growth experience for them as well.”
Thomas led the offensive side with nine kills and three service points, while Brisebois had five kills and three blocks. Kylie Joyce helped out a bit everywhere with eight service points, two kills and two digs, while Rachel Wendling added five service with three aces, four digs and a kill and Suriana Lee had four digs, three assists and two kills.