WELLESLEY, Mass. – Canton volleyball has a long history of success. The Bulldogs have won 15 league titles in the last 17 seasons and have reached nine sectional finals. But, heading into Saturday afternoon’s Div. 2 Central final against Westboro at Wellesley High, Canton had only one sectional title to its name.
Last year, the Bulldogs had a 2-1 lead against Groton-Dunstable but were unable to hold on, as the Crusaders rallied to win the five-set thriller. Only two players (one starter) were back from last year’s squad, but the Bulldogs were right back in the same spot on Saturday. Canton edged the first two sets and then the Rangers pulled out the third to stay alive.
“At the end of the third set, we looked like scared little kids compared to them,” said Canton coach Pat Cawley. “We were running around like chickens with their heads cut off. I was like, come on, we’re up! We’re good and luckily in volleyball a set ends and you get to start again.”
It turns out that Cawley had nothing to worry about. The Bulldogs have been through a lot this season, including a rash of injuries that forced players to adapt to changing lineups. No one expected Canton to be back in this position, so the Bulldogs were unfazed by dropping a set.
Canton came right back in the fourth, jumped out to an early lead, and closed out a 3-1 (25-23, 26-24, 18-25, 25-21) victory.
“We kept saying don’t let up, keep pushing through, and finish it,” said senior Taylor Harris. When asked what the Bulldogs learned from last year’s final, Harris explained, “We learned that if we win the first two then we can’t let up and we have to keep pushing through and we did that today.”
Cawley said, “Half of these kids were on JV last year, so no matter what happened today we were leaving this place with our heads held high. It’s been a journey and I’ve watched these girls improve. Some of these kids who are on the court right now we weren’t even sure we were keeping at tryouts, so to watch them improve so much is amazing.”
The match was even from the start, with neither team able to build a big lead in the first set. Canton’s block, led by juniors Angie Elias, Shannon Malloy, and Liz Bickett, was disrupting the Westboro attack in the early going. Elias and Malloy had back-to-back blocks to end rallies and give Canton the 8-6 lead.
Westboro grabbed its only lead of the set at 11-10, but Bickett (14 kills and 22 digs) answered with a hit from the middle. It took a little while to get her into the game, but Harris (team-high 20 kills and nine digs) came up with two straight kills to push the Canton lead to four. Westboro got the lead back down to just one at 24-23, but Harris rose up again to smash the final point of the first.
The second set was much like the first, with Canton grabbing an early lead by neither team taking full control of the match. Claire Quinn had a kill on the outside and Harris continued to be the most dynamic attacker on the floor, stretching the Canton lead to 14-11.
“Taylor is an amazing player,” said Cawley, who earned her 200th career win in the season opener. “She’s one of the top players I’ve ever coached. Offensively, defensively, blocking she is really a great player but the other kids have to do their jobs too. Taylor is certainly in a class of her own, but without the players that surround her we wouldn’t be here.”
Bickett came through with another point after a long rally and then Harris showed off her defensive ability with a block for a point. The Rangers came right back, scoring two straight and tying the set at 19-19. A Bickett kill made it 23-20 and put the Bulldogs on the brink, but Westboro got two straight before a Harris kill made it set point.
Again Westboro tied it but two errors handed Canton a two-set advantage.
Considering Canton’s history in sectional finals, a two-set lead hardly felt comfortable and the Rangers turned things around in the third to add to the pressure. A Harris kill tied the set at 17-17 and a two-touch put the Bulldogs in front, but the Rangers scored the final eight points of the third to stay alive in the match.
If a dropped set was supposed to heap pressure on Canton, the Bulldogs didn’t show it in the fourth. They jumped out to a 7-2 lead behind an ace from Stephanie Trendell, a kill by Quinn, and a block by Bickett.
“It was really good,” Harris said about the quick start in the fourth. “That let us have momentum to finish out the game.”
Setter Jackie Morrissey (35 assists) has grown into her role this year and she was spraying the ball to several different attackers and adding points from the service line. Quinn had another kill and Bickett added two more points, but a Westboro run put the Rangers ahead 15-14. Quinn sparked a rally with another hit and a Bickett ace and a Harris kill had Canton up 21-17.
Fittingly, it would be Bickett in the middle that would get the final swing, as she buried another shot that Westboro couldn’t handle and sealed a first Central title since 2012.
Cawley said, “Liz is a big softball player. I twisted her arm to play last year. That kid has only played six months of volleyball in her life. She is without a doubt the most improved player, the quickest, I’ve ever coached. She’s just amazing.”
When asked what it meant to win a second sectional title, Cawley said, “I feel really happy for the kids. They work hard and to have this result, I couldn’t be happier for them.”
Harris added, “It means so much. We went through so much this year. We lost 10 seniors from last year, so it’s a really big deal to be back. I think working hard everyday in practice, we never gave up and we wanted to prove everyone wrong who thought we couldn’t make it this year.”
Canton (20-3) will face the West champion, either top seed Minnechaug or No. 2 seed Longmeadow, in the state semifinal on Wednesday at a time and location to be determined.
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