By Josh Perry, Managing Editor
MANSFIELD, Mass. – The crowd was packed into the stands on both sides of the net, hurling taunts and cheering on their respective teams. It was an atmosphere that the boys’ basketball teams would be thrilled to get this winter.
The home half of the crowd was noticeably quieter in the third set, as Taunton took control. The Tigers, who already led the match 2-0, took a 14-6 lead after a strong serve by Alyssa Gibson (five kills, two blocks). The wheels had come off for the Hornets and the season seemed destined to end.
However, the first-time league champions would lay down and let the season end without a fight. Meg Hill (10 kills) had a pair of blocks and three massive kills from her spot in the middle and Sarah Mullahy added two kills. Jessica Haradon won a service point and suddenly it was 20-20 and the noise in the Albertini Gym was deafening.
Twice Taunton got within a point of the win and twice Mansfield held on. Finally, Molly Sullivan hit a dipping serves that the Hornets could not return and the Tigers took the third set for a 3-0 (25-21, 25-19, 29-27) victory and advanced to the Div. 1 South semifinal.
“We told our kids in a timeout that they’re going to keep fighting,” said Taunton coach Toby Chaperon. “They’re not a team that’s just going to sit back and let themselves get beat.”
He added, “I give all the credit to my coaches and my kids. Sometimes at the high school level you put in a game plan and you try to execute and it just doesn’t work out…this time it did.”
The Tigers came into the game looking to generate more offense than what they achieved last time out against the Hornets. Mansfield swept that match 3-0, so Chaperon moved Aimee Kistner from the middle to the outside to get more offense going. It worked and Kistner led the team with 11 kills and added eight digs.
“Aimee Kistner just played unreal. She hit the ball well,” said Chaperon. About the switch of positions, he added, “Maybe that threw them off just enough to keep them on their heels.”
Early in the game it was Gibson that provided the spark with several big blocks and kills in the middle and Sam Reaume and Emily Moor chipped in with big plays. The balanced attack at the net made Taunton difficult to matchup with.
“We had four girls over 100 kills,” said Chaperon. “We know girls, when we call upon them, can get the job done.”
Mansfield coach Melissa Heeden thought her team started well enough, with Mullahy having a strong first set, but then the passing slipped and the hitting dropped as a result. She also credited a strong Taunton defense, which was led by Sullivan and Meghan Navarro who combined for 10 digs.
“We started hitting and blocking okay in the beginning,” said Heeden, “but once our passing was a little off enough for us not to be able to hit that threw us off a little bit.”
In the third set, Heeden turned to her seniors to lead the team. As she talked about the senior class, the coach struggled to hold back tears and noted that the group of six players was still huddled together by the net well after the match had ended.
She said, “We struggled in serve/receive tonight, we struggled in passing…we had two girls getting hurt in the middle of it…but for them to deal with all of that and for them to just push through was huge. They just kept fighting.”
Reflecting on the crowd, the noise, and the fact that one of the few empty baners hanging in the gym will next fall have a year placed on it, Heeden remarked, “Five years ago you would ever have packed a gym like this. I looked around at the beginning of the game and was just so proud that it was a basketball-like atmosphere.”
In the midst of the loss, senior setter Cathryn Heavey reached a milestone. She had 27 assists in the match, which moved her past the 1,000 assist mark for her career. Her counterpart Tatum Speicher had 26 assists on the night.
Chaperon likewise appreciated the opportunity to coach in this type of game. In his 10th year in charge, this is the first time that he has had a team reach the postseason.
“I turned to my coaches and said this is what it’s all about,” Chaperon said. “Two good teams, great crowd, excitement, energy…it’s fun.”
Now, he hopes the Tigers can continue to move forward and make more history for the program. He said, “We knew that we had a special group of girls and hopefully we can push on.”
Taunton will travel to New Bedford on Thursday in the Div. 1 South semifinal. The Whalers swept the season series.
Josh Perry can be contacted at JoshPerry@hockomocksports.com and followed on Twitter at @Josh_Perry10.