In three postseason games, Franklin has gone to five sets all three times and has won all three of them.
That pattern held again in the Div. 1 Central/West final on Saturday evening at Wellesley High. Franklin cruised through the first two sets, demonstrating why the Panthers are still unbeaten, but then Shrewsbury rallied to win two straight and force a decisive final set. Franklin jumped out early to win the fifth set 15-5 and secure the program’s first-ever sectional title.
“You just have to work harder than the girls on the other side of the net, just want it, and I think it showed in the fifth set that they wanted it,” said first-year Franklin coach Kelsey Weymouth. “I’m beyond proud.”
Junior setter Lauren McGrath said, “We always have the energy but sometimes we doubt ourselves and we have to pick ourselves back up. We really proved that tonight in the fifth set; we came out strong.”
When asked how she felt to be the first Franklin team to win a sectional title, McGrath replied, “Amazing, I can’t even think right now. I’m blown away.”
Franklin was on a roll at the start of the match. The Panthers took their first lead at 8-7 of the opening set and never relinquished it, winning 25-22 to get the early advantage in the final. Defensively, the Panthers were tenacious, led by libero RRiley Marino, and didn’t allow the Colonials to find any rhythm.
“She’s a little spitball of fire,” Weymouth said of Marino. “Riley is probably one of the best defensive girls that I’ve seen in high school. She hustles every single ball, she’s always talking, she is always moving. Her heart is always in it.”
The dominant play continued in the second set, as Franklin took the lead at 9-8 and carried the lead all the way to a 25-21 win. Shrewsbury was struggling to keep up with the balance in the Panthers attack, which featured streaks from a number of hitters, including five kills in the second from Ellie Wisniewski and strong hitting in the middle from Maggie Doyle and Hailey Sanders.
The key to the Franklin attack was McGrath, who not only spread the ball around to all the hitters but always seemed to make the right decision as to who had the hot hand or who had the best look to beat the defense.
Weymouth said, “Lauren is good enough that she’ll put the ball to whoever is on. She does a very good job of spreading out the offense and knowing what time is right to go to what player.”
McGrath was asked how it feels to have so many weapons at her disposal as a setter and she responded, “It is the greatest thing in my life. I always get so excited. It’s awesome.”
Everything was going to plan for the Panthers until the start of the third set. It was as though a switch had been flipped and suddenly it was Shrewsbury dominating, the Colonials that never allowed a ball to hit the floor, and hitting every seam.
Franklin kept it close at first, trailing only 7-5, but then the Colonials rattled off five straight points to take control of the set. Peyton Arone subbed in for the Panthers to give the briefest of sparks, but Shrewsbury kept adding to its lead and won the set 25-17.
Any hope of the fourth set being different was put to rest quickly, as Shrewsbury raced out to a 9-2 lead. Serve-receive was a struggle, the Colonials were contesting every hit, and the Panthers couldn’t stem the momentum. Twice with Franklin hanging around, down by a handful of points, the teams put together long rallies filled with digs and great plays, but each time it was the Colonials that ended up with the point.
After Shrewsbury won the fourth 25-15, Weymouth gathered the team to refocus it on the task at hand – being the first to 15 points in the fifth. Whatever was said in that huddle seemed to work.
When the final set started, it was the Panthers from the start of the match that took the floor. Franklin pulled ahead 5-0 behind solid serving by Wisniewski and a kill from Allyson Bonnet-Eymard. Back-to-back kills by Doyle were followed by back-to-back kills by Lily Gallucio and a kill from Sanders. Suddenly it was 10-1 and it was Shrewsbury struggling to find any momentum.
“Having that first one under our belt gave them the confidence that we can do it,” said Weymouth. “I know going into a fifth set that we can do it. It was all on them.”
Wisniewski set up match point with a kill and Doyle finished it off with one of her own. The Panthers won the fifth set, the match, and the championship at a gallop.
Franklin (20-0) will advance to the state semifinal and will host perennial state power Barnstable.
Weymouth never won a sectional title as a player during a standout career at North Attleboro. The closest that she came was as a junior, when the Rocketeers lost to Barnstable in the South final. Although it is a different experience as a coach, she is enjoying every minute.
“It feels pretty great,” she explained. “I had been in their shoes and I wanted it for them. It’s huge and they deserve it more than anything.”
Facing a team widely considered the best in the state is a challenge, but McGrath is relishing the chance to show that Franklin belongs in the conversation.
“It’s the craziest thing,” she said. “We want it so bad. At the beginning of the season, we knew we’d be that strong team and we’re going to go out there and prove that we’re a damn good team.”