Pinelands Regional Volleyball Team Repeats as Shore Conference Champs

Beats Southern Regional in Title Match
Oct 31, 2018
Photo by: Rick Mellerup

It is a fairly common axiom among sportswriters that repeating championships is more difficult than winning a title the first time. After all, a championship squad has a target on its back, with every other team psyched to defeat it. Plus rosters change year to year due to retirements, trades and free agency in the pro game and graduations, opt-outs and transfers in the college and high school world.

The Pinelands Regional High School girls volleyball team certainly had a target on its back in 2018 after winning its first Shore Conference Tournament crown last year. Donovan Catholic surely wanted to revenge its hard-fought 24-26, 25-13, 25-27 loss to Pinelands in last year’s SCT final. Southern Regional players must have dreamed all year of reversing the score from last year’s SCT semifinal when they lost to the ’Cats 25-23, 24-26, 21-25. Meanwhile, the Pinelands roster certainly had changed after losing The Press of Atlantic City’s 2017 Player of the Year Carly Jannsch and All-Shore First Team setter Jessie Rising to graduation.

Well, so much for sportswriters’ axioms. Pinelands was hardly tested in its cruise to a second straight Shore Conference Tournament championship. Indeed, the 2018 Wildcats made repeating look easy.

They destroyed Barnegat 25-15, 25-15 in the first round of the SCT. True, Raritan, the tourney’s nine-seed, made things interesting for the top-seeded ’Cats in the quarterfinals, but Pinelands still won in straight sets, 26-24, 25-21. In last Thursday’s semifinal match the Wildcats needed three sets to defeat fourth-seeded Wall, 25-11, 22-25, 25-12, but the loss in the middle set was an outlier considering the girls had built a 16-8 lead before losing their concentration and earning a stare from head coach Kathy Bennett. (“She doesn’t have to yell,” said one Pinelands fan, “she just has to stare.”)

Southern and Donovan Catholic met in the other semifinal, with the second-seeded Rams winning in three sets, 22-25, 25-15, 25-22 over the third-seeded Griffins, so Donovan wouldn’t get a chance to flip the 2017 score in the championship match. But Southern still could earn its revenge, and Southern was a hot team.

The Rams had an even easier time of it than Pinelands in their SCT run. They had crushed Toms River East, the five-seed, in the opening round, 25-12, 25-12. They had rolled over seventh-seeded Colts Neck in the quarterfinals, 25-17, 25-15. True, Donovan Catholic had given them a scare by winning the first set in the semis, but in the end they were able to dispatch a very good Griffins squad that had lost only two times in the regular season, once to the Wildcats and once to the Rams.

So, surely a tight three-set match between Pinelands and Southern loomed ahead in the title match. Wrong. It wasn’t even as close, as the final 25-19, 25-21 score indicated.

Southern took a 1-0 lead in the first set. It was the last time the Rams would lead in the entire match.

The 25-21 final in the second set is also misleading. The Wildcats jumped out to 7-1 and 21-12 leads, meaning the Rams were playing catch-up throughout. Unlike the second set against Wall, the ’Cats never took their feet off the pedal.

Pinelands dominated the action at the net, so much so that Southern often had its third touch take place in the mid-court. Kayla Thornton recorded 15 kills with a wonderful mixture of hard smashes and well-placed tips. Southern seemed frustrated by the blocking efforts of Wildcat Jaycee DeMaria, who ended up with four blocks, and Thornton, who recorded three. The Rams were able to block only two Pinelands kill attempts.

The Wildcat defense was a picture-perfect display of teamwork, with Adrianna Dancisin credited with six digs, Kati Coverdale and Brittney Houseworth with five, Emma Capriglione with four, Cierra Seals and Thornton with three, Victoria Pickel and Tiffany Papa with two and DeMaria with one. Likewise, there were numerous contributors on the service line, with Houseworth racing up seven service points and Seals, Capriglione and Thornton each recording six.

Pickel had 24 assists.

Sophomore setter Stephanie Soares was the star of the night for Southern, contributing 11 service points, including three aces, in the title match to go along with her dozen assists.  Jess Sprankle led the defense with eight digs.

“I thought my team played very well,” said Bennett as her team was celebrating with family and friends.

That hadn’t been the case against Raritan, she said.

“When we played Raritan last week, we didn’t show up to save our lives. We won anyway, but we didn’t show up.”

Bennett also said she thought her team may have surprised some naysayers who said Pinelands couldn’t withstand losing two stars from the 2017 team. She had, she said, seven seniors, all of whom made their presence known throughout the season

Had the Raritan match been a case of Wildcat overconfidence, just as it seemed their second set letdown against Wall had been? If so, could Pinelands get caught by surprise by a lesser team in a super-tough New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Group 2 State Tournament?

If the result of the first round match between fourth-seeded Pinelands and 29th-seeded Science Park on Monday evening is any indication, the ’Cats are aware that cockiness could send them home early. Pinelands won, 25-6, 25-9, the biggest blowout in the 16-game round.

Up next for Pinelands, which has the home court advantage through the quarterfinals, is the 13-seed, Voorhees, on Thursday. Voorhees beat Cinnaminson, the 20th-seed, 25-19, 25-21 on Monday.

If the Wildcats are successful on Thursday, they’ll host the winner of a match between fifth-seeded Pascack Hills and Caldwell, the tourney’s 12-seed, on Saturday.

Southern is the second-seed in the NJSIAA Group 4 State Tournament. The Rams opened their “third season” on Tuesday, entertaining Union, the 34-seed, too late for the results to make this week’s SandPaper. If successful, they, like the Wildcats, will continue their postseason campaign at home on Thursday and Saturday.

As of this writing the Wildcats have a 25-2 record and are ranked 10th in the state among all groups. Southern has recorded a 27-4 record and is ranked 17th.

— Rick Mellerup

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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