South Portland junior Katie Whitmore, left, freshman Maria Degifico, sophomore Ashlee Aceto, senior Molly Mawhinney and sophomore Kaleisha Towle celebrate a point during the Red Riots’ shocking 3-0 win at Deering in Wednesday night’s Class A state semifinal match. South Portland will face Scarborough in the state final Friday night.

Mike Strout photos.

More photos below.

PORTLAND—There will be an upstart program playing for the Class A volleyball state title Friday evening, but it won’t be the Deering Rams protecting their home court going up against powerhouse Scarborough.

Instead, the clock remains stuck on 11:59 p.m. and Cinderella lives on as the South Portland Red Riots, in just their fifth varsity season, will take the sport’s biggest stage.

Wednesday evening’s Class A state semifinal was expected to be yet another chapter in top-ranked Deering’s feel-good story, but South Portland, which sat 5-5 at one juncture this fall, stole the show.

In absolutely decisive, stunning and spectacular fashion.

The Rams raced to a 17-10 lead in the first set, as senior Avery Donovan had her way at the net, producing four straight kills, but the Red Riots roared back behind the net dominance of senior Molly Mawhinney and sophomore Kaleisha Towle and pinpoint serving of junior Grace Rende to prevail, 25-22.

South Portland then appeared to seize control of the match when it went up, 23-17, in the second game, but Deering rose off the deck and pulled even on a block from Donovan. Had the Rams been able to complete the comeback, they may have righted the ship, but instead, the Red Riots got the next two points, punctuated by a Rende ace, and took a 2-0 lead.

South Portland wasn’t about to let Deering breathe in the third set, scoring the first nine points behind Aceto’s serving, and extending it even further as Mawhinney had a service run of her own. The Rams were staggered and couldn’t recover and the Red Riots went on to a 25-10 victory to take the match, three sets to none.

South Portland got solid performances from multiple players, improved to 10-6, ended the Rams’ best-ever season at 14-2 and in the process, punched its ticket to the Class A state final for the first time, where it will face the second-ranked Red Storm (14-2) Friday at 7 p.m., back at Deering High School.

“I’m beyond proud of this team,” said Red Riots coach Nicole Kane. “I told the girls that if they could dig deep and fight and if we played defense first, we could play with anyone. We didn’t let balls drop and we played as a team.”

Uncharted waters

While Deering has gotten plenty of attention for its meteoric rise, South Portland’s improvement has been nearly as impressive.

Entering this season, the Red Riots had never posted a winning record or captured a postseason match, but this year’s squad has made history, going 8-6 in the regular season and as the fifth seed in Class A, went to No. 4 Gorham, an established program, and sprung a four-set upset in Saturday’s quarterfinal round.

The Rams, meanwhile, in just their third varsity season, started the season with a stunning upset of Scarborough and won their first dozen matches. After finally falling from the unbeaten ranks at home against Biddeford, Deering closed with a win over Brunswick and clinched the top seed in Class A. In Saturday’s quarterfinal round, the Rams held off No. 9 Bonny Eagle in three hard-fought sets to advance.

In the regular season meeting, Sept. 12 in Portland, Deering prevailed, 25-21, 25-20, 25-9. 

Wednesday’s contest was the first between the schools in the postseason and it went the opposite of the regular season encounter and contrary to what was expected by the pundits, ending in just 68 minutes shocking minutes.

South Portland hinted at big things to come when it scored the match’s first four points. The Rams roared right back with five in a row, highlighted by three kills from Donovan and an ace from junior Maddy Broda. Two more Donovan kills helped Deering open up a 9-5 lead and after the Red Riots crept within 13-10 on a kill from Mawhinney, Donovan pounded four consecutive kills for a 17-10 advantage, forcing Kane to call timeout.

And her players responded with a vengeance.

A Mawhinney kill set the tone. After South Portland got the next two points, Rams coach Larry Nichols called timeout, but it didn’t help, as Mawhinney produced another kill. After Deering went up, 19-14, on a Donovan kill, a pair of blocks by Towle and an ace from Rende tied it, 19-19. Rende then served up another ace for the lead and after another Rams’ timeout, the Red Riots got the next point as well.

A service fault and another Deering point made it 21-21, but a Towle kill put South Portland on top. A kill by Rams senior Divine M’Bambi tied the score, 22-22, but on the next pivotal point, Deering hit the ball out of bounds, Aceto followed with a block and Mawhinney ended the set with a kill and the Red Riots had the jump by virtue of a 25-22 victory.

“We’ve done that all season,” Kane said. “We were down against Gorham too and fought back and won. We’re used to it. The girls don’t give up. This is the time they can’t give up. We stayed focused, played our game and came back and won it.”

In that first game, Aceto had seven aces and five service points, Mawhinney added six kills and Rende served six points, which counteracted Donovan’s 10 kills and Broda’s 10 assists and seven service points.

The second set was tied 1-1, 2-2, 3-3 and 4-4, but a Mawhinney kill sparked a 4-0 run for an 8-4 South Portland lead. A kill from senior Dianne Dervis and an ace from M’Bambi were countered by two more Red Riots points for a 10-6 lead. The Rams crept back within two points at 12-10 and 13-11, but Towle had a pair of kills, freshman Maria Degifico served an ace, then served two more points for an 18-12 lead, forcing Nichols to call timeout. 

It didn’t pay immediate dividends, as South Portland pushed the lead to 20-13, but Deering found its groove, pulling within 21-17. The Red Riots weren’t fazed and went back up, 23-17, but the Rams rattled off six straight points, highlighted by kills from Donovan and M’Bambi and a pair of blocks from Donovan, to tie the set, 23-23.

With not only the game, but perhaps irreversible momentum hanging in the balance, South Portland rose off the deck and found a way to prevail.

After a communication breakdown prevented Deering from returning the ball, the Red Riots got an ace from Rende and took a commanding 2-0 lead by virtue of a 25-23 second set victory.

The difference in the pivotal game was 10 assists from Aceto, five service points from Degifico and nine kills from Mawhinney, who has inserted herself in the discussion of the state’s most devastating hitters.

“Ashlee did a great job setting and I just aimed for the deep corners,” Mawhinney said. “We knew Deering was a very good defensive team and we had to step it up.”

“It’s amazing to play with Molly,” Aceto said. “I love her. She always kills it.”

“Molly is a go-to player,” Kane added. “I’m glad we can really showcase her.”

Deering went into the third set hoping to keep the match alive and gain momentum, but it didn’t take long for South Portland to squash those aspirations.

Aceto stepped to the service line to start the game and by the time she was done, the lead was 9-0. A block from Rende got things started, Mawhinney had two kills and a block, Towle added a kill and Aceto had two aces along the way. 

“I started picking spots and put it where they weren’t,” Aceto said.

“Serving has been huge,” Kane said. “We work on that a ton. We have six solid servers. There’s no one who goes behind the line that I get nervous about.”

A kill from Donovan got Deering on the board, but the next four points went to the Red Riots to create an insurmountable lead. The Rams tried to claw back, drawing within 14-5, but a Mawhinney kill and another point made it 16-5. Deering got within nine, 16-7, on a kill from sophomore Rachel Pardi, but a block from Towle, a Mawhinney kill and a Towle kill made the score 20-7. The Rams crept within 21-9, but Mawhinney and senior Shannon Murphy had kills to draw the visitors closer. After a service fault gave Deering its final point, South Portland brought the curtain down with a kill from Mawhinney and at 7:12 p.m., after the Rams couldn’t get the ball over the net, the Red Riots had a 25-10 third set victory and a 3-0 match triumph.

“It was awesome,” Aceto said. “We brought our ‘A’ game and brought so much intensity.”

“We were fired up and ready to go and we wanted to make history,” said Mawhinney. “We trust each other to get the ball up, get it down and be where we need to be and do what we need to do.”

“It was a great team effort out there,” Kane added. “Our biggest battle is not making mistakes. We eliminated those and that was big for us. Our close matches got us here and we used it to our advantage. I knew if we played our game with the momentum we had, we could win it in three (sets). We have the offense and the defense, I have full faith in my girls. Closing out the last game like that, I’m beyond proud.”

Mawhinney turned heads with 22 kills. She also had five service points and a pair of blocks. 

“We knew we’d take hits from her, but what was equally impressive was Molly having power hits from the back row,” Nichols said. “It was an impressive performance from her in every area. She played like a college hitter.”

Towle had eight kills and three blocks.

“We took advantage when Molly didn’t have a blocker on her and we knew we had to feed her and it was the same with Kaleisha and we did that,” Kane said. “When they keyed in on Molly and Kaleisha, we set our other girls and they put the ball away as well.”

Aceto was invaluable as a setter, producing 24 assists, while adding 20 service points.

Degifico finished with nine service points and Rende added seven.


Deering was led by 13 kills from Donovan, 18 assists and eight service points from Broda and nine service points from Dervis.

“I’m so proud of the kids,” Nichols said. “They worked hard, but give all the credit to South Portland. They kept the ball in play. We didn’t take care of the ball and a lot of that was adrenaline. They took it to us and we had errors and losing that first game was huge. If we took the second set, it would have been interesting, but again, we didn’t take care of the ball and they did. They did just what you’re supposed to do in the third set.”

The Rams were this year’s “it team” from Opening Night right up until Wednesday and while the season’s end was bitter, it will long be remembered fondly.

“I wish we’d played better, but it’s been a magical year for this club,” Nichols said. 

Deering will lose Dervis, Donovan, M’Bambi and Kristal Gonzalez to graduation.

“I’ll miss (the seniors),” Nichols said. “Avery was just learning how to play three years ago, but she became the anchor of this season. I can’t say enough about Dianne. In terms of volleyball, she can only help a team. I feel lucky to have had her. Divine got better and better every year. Kristal Gonzalez was a defensive star.”

The Rams won’t be able to sneak up on anyone in 2018, but they won’t need to.

“We have other kids coming back who have seen what volleyball was like,” Nichols said. “We can only learn and get better.”

The big stage

For the Red Riots, meanwhile, the unthinkable is now three sets from reality.

South Portland will return to Deering High School Friday evening to play for an improbable Class A state championship, but that title won’t come without an epic struggle against one of the state’s most dominant programs.

The Red Riots lost in straight sets to visiting Scarborough Oct. 17 (8-25, 11-25, 16-25) and will be decided underdogs as the Red Storm are surging and will be playing in their third straight state final (Scarborough beat Greely to win it all in 2015 and lost to the Rangers last fall).

South Portland embraces the challenge.

“It’s awesome to play for a state championship,” Aceto said. “It will be amazing to play against Scarborough. We’ll prepare the same way we prepared for Deering. We’ll come out our hardest and bring the intensity.”

“I never thought we’d come this far,” said Mawhinney. “I’m so proud of my team. We realized we’re a very good defensive team and when we’re on, we’re on. We have to come out with the same energy and attitude we had today and trust each other and believe in each other. We like the underdog role.”

“We know if we can play with the intensity we had tonight, we can play with (Scarborough),” Kane added. “I’m so excited for the girls. I’d love to be out on the court with them, I couldn’t be happier to get them here.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports 

South Portland sophomore Ashlee Aceto sets the ball. Aceto had 24 assists and 20 service points in the win.

Deering senior Avery Donovan goes up for a kill as South Portland freshman Maria Degifico, left, and junior Grace Rende defend.

South Portland sophomore Kaleisha Towle produces a kill as Deering sophomore Rachel Pardi defends.

Deering senior Dianne Dervis prepares a serve.

South Portland junior Grace Rende, left, and senior Molly Mawhinney block the shot of Deering senior Avery Donovan.

Deering junior Elizabeth Sevigny dives to save the ball.

Deering senior Divine M’Bambi goes up for a kill as South Portland junior Grace Rende, left, and senior Shannon Murphy defend.