CANTON, Mass. – While Canton had already secured at least a share of its 15th league title in 17 seasons, there was still a chance that North Attleboro could split and make it two titles in three years for Big Red, but that would require beating the Bulldogs for a second time this season.
North dropped the first set on Wednesday night, battled to win two close sets in a row, and was forced to a decisive fifth set before securing a 3-2 (18-25, 25-23, 26-24, 18-25, 15-7) victory and a season sweep over its Davenport rival.
“When the energy is up, we thrive,” said North coach Kim Hallahan. “So, it’s nice to play against great competition. They’re a great team and we like that competition, it boosts us and gives us a lot of energy. Luckily, they did it twice.”
The first set was back-and-forth at the start with North building a 16-13 lead behind strong play at the net from its front line, including Kylie Melanson, Joanna Collins-Bilyeu, and Grace Munley. Canton called a timeout to reset and whatever was said in the huddle worked because the Bulldogs rolled off seven straight points and finished the first on a 12-2 run.
After being largely held in check for most of the set, senior hitter Taylor Harris (20 kills) got going for the Bulldogs with three straight kills and then a block for a point. Claire Quinn closed out the set with a kill to put the hosts ahead 1-0 in the match.
“We’ve been fighting through a lot of injuries all year and we’ve been fighting back in matches,” said Canton coach Pat Cawley. “We’ve had a lot of different lineups and we find ourselves down a lot until they kind of get used to each other and come back.”
The momentum carried over to the start of the second, with Canton jumping out to a 4-0 lead, but North came storming back to take the lead. The lead switched hands five times and the score was tied 13 times in the set, as neither team managed to get any separation. Riding the hot hand of Munley (20 kills) and a big ace from setter Hayley Gaskin that gave them set point, North edged out a 25-23 win in the second.
North took charge in the third set, with Munley continuing to be tough to slow down and Melanson and Abby Gallagher adding alternatives on the outside. It seemed like all the bounces were going North’s way as well, with Munley getting a point on a hit that rolled down the top of the net and dropped into an unoccupied space and then following up a remarkable dig by Canton’s Angie Elias by smashing another kill that made it 20-15.
Just when it looked like the Rocketeers might roll into the lead in the match, Canton came storming back, eventually tying the set at 24-24. With the match on the brink, Gallagher had back-to-back kills to close out the third.
“These girls put in all the time, all the practice, they put in 110 percent and that’s all I’ve ever asked for as a coach,” said Hallahan. “When we go into timeouts, whether we’re down or up, I tell them you have this and you have to believe in yourselves the way I believe in you. They definitely did tonight.”
“We did get some points in the middle when we got our passing where we needed it to be,” Cawley explained. “I thought Liz had a great match blocking and hitting and she’s a six-position player for us, so she’s played well all the way around.”
North had the chance to seal the win, leading 16-14 in the fourth, but again Canton managed to rally. This time the Bulldogs scored 11 of the final 13 points in the set, including a seven-point series with Nikki Desjardins at the service line. Fittingly, it was Bickett that rose up with a blast to close it out and force a fifth and deciding set.
In the fifth, the Rocketeers stormed out of the gate, winning five of the first six points. Canton got as close as three on two occasions but North had the answer. Munley was immense in the final set, recording seven kills, and Melanson closed out the match with a blast.
“She was unreal,” Hallahan said about Munley. “She has grown tremendously. She has been the most improved out of any kid that I’ve coached before. She had so much fun tonight, so it’s really great to see that.”
Cawley was glad to see her team continue to fight back in the match and get the chance to perform in a playoff-like atmosphere. “It’s tough losing a match like that,” she said, “but I told the kids, this is what we want to do, this is the volleyball we want to play and unfortunately we couldn’t pull it out. We battled, it’s all I can ask for.”
Despite the loss, Canton (15-3, 12-3) will have the chance to win the title outright when it travels to Milford on Friday.
When Cawley was asked about maintaining the consistent level of success over the past 17 years, she replied, “People look at it because we put the Canton shirts on, we’re going to win, but many, many years it’s a puzzle until midseason and we don’t know how we’re going to do. I keep telling the kids that winning a league title is hard, it’s not expected, and you should enjoy it.”
North Attleboro (12-5, 11-4) will be rooting for Milford on Friday but to have a shot at splitting the title will also have to beat Foxboro in the regular season finale.