Portland and Deering players keep a close eye on the ball during Tuesday’s 3-1 Bulldogs’ victory.

PORTLAND—The match was played in March, not September or October.

With no fans or buildup.

But when Portland and Deering do battle, it doesn’t matter the sport or setting.

Something compelling is bound to ensue.

And that was the case Tuesday evening at Portland High’s gymnasium, when the Bulldogs opened their abbreviated indoor volleyball season against the Rams.

Portland let a 10-3 lead slip away and lost the first game, 20-25, but the Bulldogs settled down and took the second set, 25-23, then won a back-and-forth third game, 25-22.

Deering held a 19-17 lead in the fourth set as it looked to push the match the distance, but after senior Emily Pozzy, who had six kills in the fourth game alone, had to leave with a foot injury, Aja Tuttle came into the match and served four critical points to help Portland put it away, 25-20.

The Bulldogs improved to 1-0 and in the process dropped the Rams to 3-1, but there was plenty to hail on both sides.

“The girls played really, really well,” said Portland coach Joe Russo. “They bent but didn’t break. That was one heck of a high school volleyball match. It was great for the city of Portland. It was very competitive. A lot of great athletes on the court. It could have gone either way.”

Close quarters

Deering and Portland know each other well and always get up for an annual showdown, regardless of the sport.

The Rams won their first three matches during this shortened indoor season, all by 3-0 scores over Westbrook.

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, hadn’t yet taken the court.

The last time Deering and Portland met in a countable volleyball match was Oct. 8, 2019, when the Bulldogs prevailed, 3-1 (15-25, 25-15, 25-15, 25-23).

Tuesday, Portland did it again, in similar fashion.

The Bulldogs didn’t appear to be rusty to start, as they scored the first five points of the match, with Gianna Smith serving up a couple aces. The Rams tried to settle down behind kills from juniors Katy Gallagher and Isabela Nieves, but an ace from senior Coral Smith made it 10-3 Portland. A couple aces from junior Nicole Quang got Deering’s rally started. A kill from senior Aalliyah Ferreira pulled the Rams within 14-13, but a service fault and kills from senior Amanda Kabantu and Coral Smith made it 17-13 Bulldogs. Deering wouldn’t be denied, however, as it scored six straight points to take the lead for the first time, as Nieves had consecutive kills for a 19-17 advantage. Portland never got closer than one from there and an ace from Nieves and a bungled return by the Bulldogs gave the Rams the first set, 25-20.

Ferreira had six service points and three kills, Gallagher six assists and Nieves three kills and three service points to help Deering get the lead in the match.

“We beat them pretty easily in the fall and we started well in the first game, but Deering came back and I knew then it would be a heck of a match,” Russo said.

The second game saw the Rams have a chance to put a stranglehold on the match, but Portland refused to buckle and after eight ties and six lead changes, the Bulldogs drew even.

After Gallagher’s ace put Deering up, 2-1, early, Portland rattled off six straight points, five behind the serving of Natasha Wales. The Rams roared right back and the game was tied, 8-8, 9-9, 10-10, 11-11 and after the Bulldogs went on top, 15-11, on an ace from Pozzy, Deering answered again and tied it at 17-17 (on a Gallagher ace), then went up, 19-17, on two more Gallagher aces. After a Russo timeout, Portland responded and when Coral Smith produced a kill, the Bulldogs led, 20-19. Wales followed with an ace, but a Gallagher kill made it a one-point game again. Portland was able to finish strong, as after the Rams hit the ball out, Coral Smith served an ace, the Bulldogs got another point to set up set point, but Gallagher’s kill gave Deering life and cut the deficit to one before a service fault gave Portland a 25-23 victory and tied the match, 1-1.

Wales had eight service points, including a pair of aces, in the victory.

The pivotal third game would feature even more twists and turns, including a dozen ties and eight lead changes, before the Bulldogs emerged with the lead.

In a razor-thin set, neither team went up by more than three points and the contest was tied at 1-1, 3-3, 6-6 (after a kill from Pozzy), 11-11 (after an ace from Deering’s Lana Gin), 12-12, 13-13 (after a Ferreira kill), 14-14, 15-15, 19-19, 20-20, 21-21 and 22-22. Finally, Portland took the lead on a service fault and after Deering failed to return the ball, a kill from Coral Smith gave the Bulldogs a 25-22 victory and a 2-1 advantage in the match.

Pozzy had three kills and three service points in the set.

Portland would eventually pull out the fourth game and win the match, but once again, nothing came easily, as the set would be tied five times and on five occasions, the lead changed before the Bulldogs finally finished it off.

The Rams got the first two points, but Portland rallied to go up, 8-5, thanks to three straight kills from Pozzy and an ace from Kabantu. Back came Deering to tie it up, 14-14, on an ace from Ferreira. The Rams got the next point as well and after a kill from Gallagher led, 16-14. A kill from Ferreira made it 19-17 Deering, but after a long volley, Pozzy produced a kill to pull Portland within a point.

That was the good news for the Bulldogs.

The bad news was that Pozzy was hobbled on the play, limped off and was replaced by Tuttle.

Who rose to the occasion.

Tuttle served the ball over and eventually, Coral Smith’s kill tied the game, 19-19. Tuttle then served an ace and Portland had the lead for good. Consecutive kills from Smith made it 22-19 and while the Rams won the next point, they soon faulted and Gianna Smith delivered consecutive aces to end it, 25-20, giving the Bulldogs the match in four close sets.

“I only had two subs,” Russo said. “Aja played just a little bit, but she came in and served great.”

Pozzy had nine kills and eight service points, Kabantu nine service points and six kills, Gianna Smith 10 service points, Coral Smith eight kills and six service points, Wales 13 service points and six assists and Tuttle four critical service points off the bench.

Deering was paced by Ferreira, who had 15 service points and six kills, Gallagher, who wound up with seven service points, 10 assists, five kills and a pair of blocks, and Morgan Shibles, who added nine service points.

“I’m proud of the girls,” said Rams coach Nika Francois. “It was a great match. Both teams played really well. I’m really proud of my girls. I think it was a challenge for us. It’s back to reality. We know what we need to work on and we’ll do better next time. We have tough opponents and we’ll be ready for them.”

Play as much as possible

Deering is back in action Monday at Gorham. The Rams then close with home matches versus Thornton Academy, Portland (April 3) and Cheverus.

“The plan is to continue to get better for the fall,” Francois said. “It’s a very weird year. It’s a new team and we’re getting used to playing with each other. I’m excited for next year.”

Portland goes to South Portland Thursday. After a home match versus Cheverus, the Bulldogs close with matches at Deering, Thornton Academy and Cheverus.

“I just want us to play and get some experience,” said Russo.

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

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