SHARON, Mass. – As his team met in the hallway prior to Monday night’s Hock Cup quarterfinal, first-year Mansfield coach Mark Ledwich had a sense that the players were ready to build on the momentum of four wins in the final six games of the regular season and put in a good performance.
The Hornets did just that, sweeping Sharon 3-0 (25-10, 25-17, 25-18). Mansfield didn’t trail at any point against the Davenport division runners up, earning the impressive road win and booking a spot in the semifinal.
“Going into the game, we knew that if we could serve spots it would lead them in directions that would really help our defense,” Ledwich explained, “and all we did was practice where we needed to sit on defense to make that happen. It was a great game by all the kids to go out there and do their jobs.”
Sharon has not had much experience with a playoff atmosphere, even one with a limited crowd, and the Eagles looked a little tentative out of the gates. Mansfield jumped out to a 10-3 lead, then doubled it to go up 20-6 as the Eagles struggled with unforced errors.
“Someone used the term high-stakes game before the game and I think they were a little bit nervous about that,” said Sharon coach Andrea Lovett. “A lot of people were playing against people they play with in club a lot and their club coach, which also makes them a little nervous. They just didn’t execute the way they needed to. It was all fundamentals.”
Mansfield also looked strong at the net, setting a pattern for the game, as the front line dominated on both offense and defense. Sharon’s leading hitter Sara Fandel found it difficult to get into a rhythm against the blocking of Ashley and Nicole Santos, Kacey Veiking, and Alina Nowakowski.
Veiking had an early kill followed by back-to-back swings from Olivia McGrath, who also added a block and ace during the first set. Yvette Nau had an ace and Leah Fandel added a kill from her middle position but Ashley Santos followed with a kill to end any chance of the hosts going on a run. Nowakowski and Santos went back-to-back with kills to end the first.
“One of the things we said was that whatever happened we had to play at our energy,” said Ledwich. “Although we have restrictions for fans, our bench brings it and makes it feel like every one of our games is a home game.”
The Eagles tried to regroup between sets, but again the Hornets came out flying. Mansfield scored the first six points of the second, behind McGrath’s strong service game. Three times Sharon would battle back within one, but each time Mansfield grabbed a crucial point to make sure it stayed in front.
After Sharon cut the lead to 11-10, McGrath scored with a well-placed tip and setter Christina Lydon scored with a quick leap and spike. Sara Fandel finally got free for a blast to make it 21-14, but Nowakowski continued to find the right angle on the outside and scored with consecutive swings. Nicole Santos added a kill in the middle and the Hornets were up 2-0 with a chance to seal the match.
Sharon needed to get off to a good start in the third, but it was the Hornets that scored the first three points and got to play from in front yet again.
Lovett said, “I’ve noticed a trend for us in the last few matches that we get down a little bit and then sort of kick in and this wasn’t a team that we could kick in against.”
The Eagles kept battling. Brynne Aidlin-Pearlman had an ace and Fandel a kill, but McGrath was proving tough to stop and Santos had a big block for an 8-5 lead. Like the second set, the Eagles were able to get within a point but couldn’t get over the hump.
“They’re good blockers and I don’t think our hitters took advantage of their knowledge and ability to hit around them, over them, mix things up,” said Lovett. “I was saying in the huddle that you can’t just pound it into their hands, you’ve got to figure something out. We didn’t adapt well.”
Down 16-15, the Eagles saw a shot drop long. It would be as close as they could get. Nowakowski followed with an ace and McGrath fired one off the block for a point. Veiking knocked one off the blockers’ hands and McGrath closed out the match with another ace.
Mansfield (6-5) will now get its third shot at co-champ Franklin in the semifinal on Wednesday. Ledwich said, “We have yet to play Franklin at full strength. We are where we need to be and a full strength Mansfield looks like this and we’re ready to come back at Franklin. Third one’s the charm.”
Sharon (8-3) will host North Attleboro in the consolation round to close out one of its most successful seasons in years.