Winning the first two sets of its FAA Volleyball Tournament final against King School, Sacred Heart Greenwich was oh, so close, to capturing the title, even after the Vikings rallied to even the match up by winning two straight sets.
The Tigers were two points away from winning the much-anticipated championship match in the fifth set, but King, kept its perfect record intact.
Top-seeded King continued its undefeated season by posting a hard-fought 3-2 comeback win over second-seeded Sacred Heart in the championship match of the FAA Tournament, before a large, bipartisan crowd at King in Stamford on Friday night.
Sacred Heart (17-6), winners of 14 straight matches heading into Friday’s FAA final against their rival, won the first two sets of the title matchup, 26-24, 25-16. But the Vikings (16-0) rallied to take the next three sets, 25-16, 25-17, 16-14 to claim another FAA Tournament championship.
Sacred Heart, which went unbeaten during the month of October and was perfect this month until Friday’s FAA final, hadn’t lost a match since it was edged by King, 3-2, during the regular season on Sept. 28. Indeed, the Tigers match up well with the Vikings and have given them their toughest tests of the season.
“We battled, they’re a great team, we respect them a lot and it was so much fun,” Sacred Heart junior setter/co-captain Emilia Bernal said. “It was a great opportunity for our team and we gave it our all. We’re really lucky that we can learn from this opportunity and we showed that we can bring out our best in pressure moments.”
After the Vikings and Tigers split the first four games, the match was decided by a fifth game. The visitors jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the fifth game, behind strong serving by Emilia Bernal, then took an 8-4 advantage later in the game, courtesy of a kill from junior middle hitter Kaitlin Robinson.
An ace by Evangelyn Forte, followed by a kill by sophomore outside hitter Grace Gapen extended the Tigers advantage in the deciding set to 11-6. SHG proceeded to take a 13-10 lead later on in the set and was two points away from capturing the FAA championship trophy. Yet that’s when King began its comeback.
Freshman Emily McKee served back-to-back aces, cutting Sacred Heart’s advantage to 13-12. Then King sophomore Caroline Ellis, who powered her squad’s offense, posted consecutive kills, giving the home team a 14-13 edge.
Gapen’s kill evened the score at 14-14, but King won the last two points and the championship match.
“This was one of our toughest opponents,” Gapen said. “Our games against King are always fun. I think we have improved so much and it’s incredible how far we’ve come, considering everything that we’ve been through. I’m very proud of our team.”
Sacred Heart, which reached the tournament’s final by topping St. Luke’s School in the semifinals, 3-1, had the momentum on its side after taking the first set from King, 26-24. The lead changed hands numerous times, before the Tigers won on a 4-0 run to go ahead, 21-19, behind stellar serving by senior Annie Cornell.
With the score knotted at 24-24, later in the opening set, Robinson’s kill gave SHG the lead for good at 25-24. The Tigers carried the momentum into the second set and they seized a 17-8 lead, behind kills from Gapen and eighth-grader Ana Pizzimbono. Sacred Heart went on to win the second set, 25-16 to claim a 2-0 lead in the title match.
“I thought we were going to do it,” Sacred Heart coach Beth Wilson Jordan said. “No one has played them five sets this season but us. We played them five sets during the regular season as well. I’m so proud of this team, it’s a dream season. Everyone stepped up and our team has been consistent throughout the season.”
The third set was close in the beginning, as senior co-captain Martina Bernal’s kill tied the score at 10-10 and Robinson’s big hit at the net evened it up again at 11-11. Then the Vikings went on a huge 11-0 run to take command of the third set, taking a 22-11 lead.
Ellis keyed King’s pivotal spurt, rising up to post two kills to go along with a pair of aces. Things also went King’s way in the fourth game, after the Tigers took an early edge. SHG led 8-5 behind a couple of Gapen kills, but the Vikings won 17 straight points to open a 22-8 lead.
Ellis, McKee and eighth-grader Caroline Kelly powered King’s run, which enabled them to knot the match, 2-2. Sacred Heart rebounded nicely in the fifth set, which was back-and-forth between the rivals throughout.
“I’m so proud of our team, we had to make a lot of adjustments and I’m happy we made it this far,” Emilia Bernal said. “It’s emotional because we were so close, but at the end of the day, we brought our heart and we left it out on the court.”
Up next for Sacred Heart is the NEPSAC Tournament, which commences Tuesday.
“I’m so proud of our team, this was an incredible game and I’m so proud of our effort,” Martina Bernal said. “It will be fun to play some new teams and face those challenges in the NEPSAC Tournament. We’ll see where it brings us.”