By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
LINWOOD — For years, teams in the girls volleyball state playoffs were seeded 1 through 32 in each group, making it very difficult for a South Jersey squad to garner a home game in the opening round of the postseason. More established and experienced North Jersey teams would gobble up the higher seeds and thus host first-round games, leaving teams from Atlantic County to take hours-long bus rides up the Garden State Parkway. But this year the NJSIAA has gone to more traditional sectional tournaments, allowing South Jersey squads to battle it out amongst each other before having to face off with the Goliaths of North Jersey.
Mainland Regional — under first-year head coach Torie Rich and her staff — made good on its first opportunity to host a playoff game. The seventh-seeded Mustangs were in control throughout against No. 10 Lacey Township, winning 2-0 (25-13, 25-15) to advance to the quarterfinals of the South Jersey Group 3 tournament. Mainland advances and will travel to No. 2 Toms River South on Wednesday.
The top eight seeds have all advanced to Wednesday’s quarterfinals, as No. 1 Shawnee hosts No. 8 Timber Creek, third-seeded Absegami hosts No. 6 Clearview — a 2-0 winner over Hammonton today — and No. 4 GCIT will host No. 5 Toms River East.
[Other Cape-Atlantic League teams will be in action later this week in South Jersey Group 2, as No. 1 Oakcrest takes on either Barnegat or Pleasantville, and No. 3 Cedar Creek will face either Jackson Liberty or Lower Cape May. Middle Township is the No. 12 seed and travels to Pinelands on Tuesday. In South Jersey Group 4 today, No. 9 ACIT lost, 2-0, to No. 8 Howell, and No. 15 EHT was swept by No. 2 Southern Regional. One other CAL team, OLMA, is the No. 3 seed in Non-Public B South and hosts Timothy Christian on Wednesday at 4 p.m. in the quarterfinals of that tournament.]
Mainland got off to a good start in the opening game against Lacey, jumping out to a 5-2 lead, but the Lions quickly cut the deficit to just 5-4. After that, however, it was all Mustangs as they went on an 11-0 run to take a commanding 16-4 lead. Senior Franky Pilli was a big part of that run, racking up a bunch of service points. Lacey bounced back with four straight aces from Rebecca Lorton to shave the Mustangs’ lead down to 16-9, but eventually Mainland built the lead back up to 23-13 and won the game on a pair of aces by junior setter Cadence Fitzgerald, who also is a basketball star at Mainland.
“I was so excited. We’ve had a lot of first this season, like we beat Pleasantville for the first time in Mainland history, and having a home playoff game was so exciting. But I know we’ve been capable of this all season, and it was nice to see everyone work so well together. I knew we had this ability, and I think today we really showed what we can do. Everything clicked today. We changed up our serving lineup and I think that really helped us out, and everybody got a lot of really good passes to me so I was able to set up our hitters,” Fitzgerald said. “With basketball season, I was very disappointed that we didn’t have any playoffs, so to have them for volleyball, and to have a home playoff game, I’m just so happy with this opportunity. I think we’re going to do well, and if we play like we did today we can keep winning.”
“This was our first time hosting a playoff game and obviously our girls were excited about that,” coach Rich said. “Coming into this I knew Lacey was going to be tough. They were underrated because of who they play up there (in the Shore Conference) and they played really tough, but I think we brought the energy from the beginning. We definitely had the energy in the beginning and it was about keeping that momentum the entire match, which they did. They really brought it today and that was reflective in the outcome.”
Fitzgerald got things going quickly in Game 2, ripping off four straight service aces to give Mainland (7-3) a 4-0 lead. Lacey (0-12) tied the game at 4 before some service points by Bella Canesi gave the Mustangs an 8-4 lead. A big-time kill later in the game by Olivia Leap stretched Mainland’s lead to 18-7, forcing Lacey to call a timeout.
“Cadence is a natural born leader. She brings positivity that is infectious, 100 percent. Having her out there and having her spirit and attitude helps this team tremendously,” Rich said. “We’ve moved some people around since the beginning of the season and kind of found what works best for us. Their chemistry today was on, and that’s what we need to keep the rest of this week through the playoffs.”
The Lions fought off match point five straight times, cutting the deficit from 24-10 to 24-15, but by that point the damage was done and it was only a matter of time until the Mustangs closed it out.
“At first, I was very nervous being a freshman, but it’s gotten easier as we’ve played more games. It really helps (having experienced teammates) because they can teach me so much more than I already know and can really help me improve,” said rookie outside hitter Sydney Booth. “It’s so fun to have playoffs and to play for something important. This season has been great and the girls have been great. It’s been so fun. I feel like I have learned so much being with these girls and I’m a lot more confident. I haven’t played volleyball in a while, but I started getting into the groove of things.”
Fitzgerald said she feels like her team is playing its best volleyball at the right time.
“Throughout the season we have changed a lot of things but I feel like now everything is coming together,” she said. “Normally we’d have two months (of practice) before ever playing a game, but with the shortened season it took a little bit but now everything is like a well-oiled machine.”
What’s next: Mainland travels to Toms River South on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. in the South Jersey Group 3 quarterfinals.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays