GORHAM—No. 4 Gorham cruised swiftly ahead to a 1-0 lead when their quarterfinals bout with No. 5 South Portland got underway on Saturday afternoon, Oct. 21. The Riots regrouped in the middle sets, however, and ultimately claimed – in a hard-fought fourth set – a 3-1 victory over the Rams.

“That first set was us showing how we were going to protect Gorham,” Rams head coach Emma Tirrell said. “And then South Portland just came back swinging, and so did we, and it ended how it ended.”

“South Portland is a really amazing team; they’re underestimated,” Tirrell said. “I think that whoever had won deserved it, and that one team just outplayed the other in the end.”

“I told them that every game was going to come down to the team that played the hardest the longest,” South Portland head coach Nicole Kane said. “No game was going to be easy, and it was going to be the team that out-hustled the other. And right now, we did that.”

As mentioned, Gorham surged ahead in the first set, jumping from 13-11 all the way to 19-12. They moved to 21-14 on a Katherine O’Donnell tip at the net and, eventually, won 25-15 on a South Portland service error.

“Coming out like that in the first set was a reflection of how badly we cared about this season,” Tirrell said. “That, honestly, was the most energetic I think I’ve ever seen them play. They were so out of breath and sweating so much and so flushed that I almost felt like I had to call a time out to give them a break – and I ended up doing that for the first time.”

The second set proved a significantly tighter affair. The teams tied at 4-4 on a spike by Riot Kaleisha Towle before Gorham zoomed ahead, reaching 9-5 on a spike of their own, this one by Meg Perry. South Portland assembled a bit of a run and evened things up 9-9, but the Rams were able to build from there, and reached 17-11 on an ace.

Again the Riots recovered: a Katie Whitmore ace brought them to 18-14, a little Towle tip to 18-16 and a Towle kill to 18-17. The squads locked up at 18-18 and 19-19 before trading brief runs, the end result of which saw South Portland take the lead, 22-21. The Riots maintained that momentum to win 25-21.

“It took us a little bit to get into [the first game],” Kane said, “but I think we finished strong. There weren’t tons of things I was disappointed in, but what was key was we got our passing consistent, and we were able to run a consistent, big offense.”

“I don’t think that’s something Gorham was used to seeing,” Kane said. “We were hitting the ball down every time, and we were making them scramble and making them tired. That helped us out tremendously.”

The third set unfolded similarly to the second, with the teams jostling for supremacy. The Rams took the lead initially at 4-1, and stayed a step ahead to 7-6, 12-8 and 17-16. But then – unsurprisingly, given what they’d earlier shown themselves capable of – South Portland pulled even at 18-18 and 19-19. They closed on another big run, winning 25-20.

Crucial to the Riots’ making the Rams work and tiring them out was Molly Mawhinney, who launched a seemingly endless – and consistently well-executed – barrage of kills at the net. 

“Molly, she’s our senior Captain; she’s been our go-to player all season,” Kane said. “She proved that tonight. She passed phenomenally; she was putting balls away.”

Kane also eagerly praised a couple of her other players, including Towle, her sophomore Captain. “Kaleisha played huge at the net; we were feeding her and she was putting everything down,” Kane said. “Grace Rende stepped up huge. They were keying in on Kaleisha and Molly, so we were able to mix up that offense and get those kills from those other girls.”

Set four began as another seesawing tussle, wending its way to 11-11. Then, however, South Portland began to pry open an advantage, going to 12-11 on a Mawhinney kill, 15-12 on a Shannon Murphy tip and 16-12 on a big Rende block. Tirrell called timeout.

But upon the outfits’ return to the court, the Rams fell a bit further behind – to 19-12, in fact. A Riots return error turned the ball over and handed Gorham an opportunity, though the Rams wouldn’t rediscover their mojo quite yet. They reached 14-19 on an Alexa Corey tip, but continued to trail until South Portland was within two points, at 23-18, of winning the day.

Finally, Gorham fell into another groove, hashing three straight before a massive O’Donnell block brought them within one at 23-22. The Riots struck next, earning match point at 24-22, but the Rams grabbed two in a row, balancing the scoreboard at 24-24 on a combo block by Evelyn Kitchen and Isabelle Kolb.

Gorham edged ahead to 25-24, gave up 25-25 on a service error, then edged ahead once more on a finesse drop to the Riots’ mid-court by Kitchen. A couple of mistakes soon put them behind again at 27-26. They needed the following point to stay alive –alas, they couldn’t secure it, managing two diving touches on the final ball but never getting it under control. 28-26.

“I think Gorham was definitely tired,” Kane said of her girls’ building a lead in the fourth set. “We’ve heard them say that they’re not used to us running such a quick offense against them. So I think we were taking advantage of that. But part of the issue with running a quick offense is that we’re going to gas our girls too.”

“So towards the end of it,” Kane said of Gorham’s comeback, “we were just getting tired, and we were making silly mental mistakes. We weren’t taking that one last step on defense; we weren’t finishing when we were swinging through those balls. And when Gorham was tired, they were able to build up their energy, which made it such a close finish.”

“I think [the girls] realized, if they didn’t change something, that it wasn’t going to go in their favor, and they got on a serving run,” Tirrell said of the Rams’ comeback. “I also think South Portland got a little freaked out, and they weren’t returning the ball like they had been for the second and third sets.”

“My team has never come back like that before, from a deficit in the end of a game with that much energy,” Tirrell said. “So I was really proud that they dug in, realized how bad they wanted it and figured out how to gain more points. We had, I think, two game points, which is incredible, coming back from an eight- or nine-point deficit.”

Tirrell took a moment to laud a few of her players. “Sara Slager and Isabelle Kolb did really well being our quarterbacks and running the court as setters. Maiya Carlson and Talia Catoggio had some really awesome digs to keep the ball up off the floor. And Evelyn Kitchen did a really good job commanding herself in the middle of the court.”

“Maybe just micro-management things,” Tirrell said, asked if there was anything else her girls could’ve done to turn the match in their favor. “Sometimes when we were covering, we weren’t as low as we could be, or when we were blocking, we weren’t penetrating over the net as much as we could be. Just the little things.”

South Portland moves to 9-6 on the season. They will face No. 1 Deering (14-1) in the semifinals on Thursday the 25th. 

“I’m super-proud of the girls,” Kane said, “especially in that last game, for fighting through to the end and not giving up on themselves…I’m really proud of us as a team, because this was totally a team effort tonight.”

Gorham, meanwhile, retires till 2018 at 9-6. 

“I’m so proud of them,” Tirrell said of her girls.  “I’ve loved this season. As a first-year coach, it’s been so great coming in here with all the support. I want to thank Gorham for bringing me in and letting me do my job, and allowing them and helping them to have a really great season.”

Adam Birt can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @CurrentSportsME.

South Portland’s Ashlee Aceto gets under a ball in the Riots’ win over Gorham.

Gorhamites Maiya Carlson (14) and Katherine O’Donnell (15) work together to block South Portlander Shannon Murphy.

South Portlander Kaleisha Towle goes up for the kill.

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