Given the way they've been playing all year, the Chautauqua Lake Lady Thunderbirds volleyball team hadn't had a whole lot to be afraid of when squaring off against a given opponent.
In fact, heading into Monday's Section 6 Class D-1 final at Jamestown Community College against Cattaraugus-Little Valley, the squad had played just about as perfect as possible, going 16-0, capturing a Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Athletic Association Division 2 title and, over the season's two months, losing a paltry two games in 50.
All the same, however, Monday's contest was understandably different. And on the big stage with a vocal crowd, coach Joanne Meadows could see her team was playing with a little more tension than she's used to.
Jenna Einink of Chautauqua Lake blocks against Cattaraugus-Little Valley in Monday’s Section 6 Class D-1 girls volleyball championship match.
Photo by Lisa Monacelli
"I think we played a little like we were scared," she admitted. "It was noticeable. Every once in a while we would remember that we didn't have to be scared and we would play strong, but then we would start looking nervous again, so I never felt like we were safe."
Despite whatever fear they may have been experiencing, though, the Lady Thunderbirds overcame it when it mattered.
With things all tied up at a game apiece, Chautauqua Lake (17-0) showed some grace under pressure in withstanding a furious Lady Timberwolves' comeback in game three and then edged their opponents in game four to secure the victory - 25-23, 24-25, 25-23, 25-22 - and a Class D-1 crown.
Jenna Einink led the victors with a game-high 20 kills, 17 digs, a block and four aces; Hannah Rauh delivered 10 kills, 17 digs and four aces; Ashton Albanesius five kills, four aces and seven digs; Tara Hunt 24 assists and seven digs; Katie Meadows 18 assists, five digs and two aces; and Sydney Milliman four kills, six digs and a block.
The win vaults the squad into the Class D crossover game against D-2 champion Ellicottville on Thursday at 6 p.m., at JCC. There, the Lady Thunderbirds will be looking to capture their first sectional title since 2002.
While it may seem counterintuitive, it was game two - Chautauqua Lake's lone loss - that perhaps meant more to the final outcome than its three victories.
After a slim game-one win, aided in part by Cattaraugus-Little Valley's (14-8) Sara Crandall taking some time to find the range with her powerful spikes and a late surge by Einink (with Chautauqua Lake leading by one, 22-21, she connected for two kills in the final three points to clinch it), the Lady Thunderbirds soon built a 10-6 lead in game two.
But that lead wouldn't last, and with Kaitlyn Nye at the service line the Lady Timberwolves scored a whopping 11 straight points, and 13 of 16, to built a commanding 21-14 advantage.
At that point, it would have been easy for the Lady Thunderbirds to give in, but that's the opposite of what they did. Systematically taking advantage of both the strong serving of Milliman and some mistakes by Cattaraugus-Little Valley, Chautauqua Lake came roaring back to pull within one point, 23-22. A Crandall spike and a Lady Thunderbirds' net violation, however, gave the Lady Timberwolves the game.
"Just the fact that we made it that close of a game gave us a lot of momentum going into the next game," Meadows said. "(In the beginning), we looked pretty nervous and then when we went down a few points - a lot of points, actually - for the girls to come back, being scared as they were playing, I think that proved something to them. We didn't come back and win the game, but I think because they could (respond) that shifted the momentum in our direction."
Confidence once again in their corner, the Lady Thunderbirds managed to build a modest lead, 23-18, in game three behind six kills from Einink and three aces and three well-timed tips at the net by Rauh. Even as Cattaraugus-Little Valley mounted a late, hard-fought comeback to cut the deficit to two, Chautauqua Lake held steady to pull out the victory.
That momentum, combined with improved passing in game's three and four to help setters Tara Hunt and Katie Meadows, were the difference, Meadows noted, in leading her squad to victories in back-to-back games.
"I think in the first two games our passing wasn't exactly what I wanted it to be," she explained, "so my two setters, Katie and Tara, were killing themselves trying to get to the ball. And it's hard to set up Jenna, or anybody, when they're setting from the attack line. So in the first couple of games we didn't really get those kids the ball where it needed to be for them to be able to hit. But in the third game, we realized we could play with them and actually looked more like ourselves. Once our setters started getting the ball our offense really kicked in."
Now all that stands between Chautauqua Lake and its first sectional crown in a decade is Ellicottville, a group, like the Lady Thunderbirds, that has yet to suffer defeat this season.
"They're just a solid, solid team," Meadows said of the challenge ahead. "They have a lot of tall, athletic girls ... and you can't teach that, you either have it or you don't, and they do. ... We're going to have to work a lot on defense, because they hit the ball very well."
NOTES: Shelly Bach had 15 kills and four blocks in defeat while teammates Sara Crandall added 13 kills and 13 digs, Nye 36 assists and Erin McGlew eight digs.