Last Friday, the Pilgrim boys’ volleyball team barely outlasted Central in a grueling five-game match in the Division II quarterfinals.
Afterwards, the top-seeded Pats were hoping their somewhat sloppy play wasn’t a sign of things to come.
They got a pretty clear answer on Monday.
Facing Tolman in the semifinals, Pilgrim erased any doubts and did so in dominant fashion. The Pats steamrolled the defending D-II champion Tigers 3-0, earning their first-ever berth in the championship game. Pilgrim won the games 25-21, 25-21 and 25-13.
“It’s hard to describe something like this,” Pilgrim head coach Mike McGiveron said. “But I knew this team could be in the position that it is in today. I knew that as long as we stayed as a team and everybody picked it up and took responsibility for what they had to do, I knew we could be here.”
The Pats, who went 16-0 during the regular season, will take on fellow unbeaten Barrington in the finals, which are scheduled for today at 6 p.m., at the Providence Career & Technical Academy.
The Eagles knocked off Cranston West 3-2 in the other semifinal.
“It feels great,” said Pilgrim senior setter Jason Ferguson, who had 42 assists on the night. “There’s no better experience then making it to the finals.”
Pilgrim can look back on its serving as a big reason why it’s now only one match away from raising the program’s first ever championship trophy.
Against Central, the Pats struggled to close out games. On Monday, Tolman – which knocked Pilgrim out of the playoffs in the quarterfinals a year ago – had no answer for the Pats’ consistent service attack.
“We had a really big problem last match against Central just seizing a lead, and taking it and running with it,” McGiveron said. “We did an awesome job of that tonight because our service was top notch. We have the best service in the state, I have no doubt about it. We serve at a very high percentage, and our difficulty is very high.”
Leading the way in that department was senior John Zuffoletti, who served six consecutive times late in the third game to help seal the match.
He had two aces over that span, and the game went from 16-11 to 22-11 with him behind the back service line.
“It’s the momentum late in games,” Zuffoletti said. “We step it up. We closed them out with strong service and good passing.”
Finishing strong has been a point of emphasis for Pilgrim all season long, as it has been in four five-game matches – including the playoff match with Central and a non-league match with Cranston East – and it has prevailed in all of them.
While Monday’s match didn’t go to five games, the Pats still had that killer instinct toward the end of games.
They trailed 20-19 in game one before rallying to win six of the final seven points, and they were tied at 17 in game two before winning eight of the last 12 points.
“We’ve made an emphasis on that,” McGiveron said. “I had [senior captain Sean St. Jacques] looking at me a lot and then gathering the team in between points. I just want to let them know from my eyes what I view as a point where you really need to dig in and focus, and we won a majority of those points.”
St. Jacques led the way offensively with 17 kills, while Zuffoletti was right behind him with 16. Other players, like Matt McCabe and Dan Colabella played strong at the net.
“We just kind of focused on passing,” Ferguson said. “Once our passing is there, our hitting comes naturally. We’re such a good offensive team. Once we start passing, we get more and more kills and it just flows into more points.”
Christian White, Tilden Thao and Chris Fitta all contributed as well, especially defensively.
For as well, and as dominant, as Pilgrim did play, it didn’t have a great start to the match.
It went down by as many as six points – 13-7 – before finally finding its groove. Zuffoletti got the Pats back on track with a kill, and Ferguson and McCabe teamed up for a block. McCabe added another kill two points later, and three errors from Tolman pulled Pilgrim within two at 15-13.
After the teams split the next two points, there was a lengthy delay while the referees tried to figure out how to penalize Tolman for making an illegal libero substitution. They settled on awarding the Pats a point, and the serve.
From there on out, it was all Pilgrim.
They outscored the Tigers 10-5 the rest of the way, getting three kills from Zuffoletti, one from St. Jacques and one from White over that span.
“We just kept an eye on what we had to do as a team,” McGiveron said of the delay. “We didn’t really worry about it too much.”
Tolman took an early 2-1 lead in game two thanks to a block from Kelvin Reyes and a kill by Tyler Harry, but the Pats dialed up the intensity and jumped out in front 12-5.
The Tigers came all the way back, eventually tying the score at 16, and then 17, on an ace by Reyes. But the Pats grinded out points, winning the tough ones with defense, as Tolman committed four hitting errors and a service error from there on out, lifting Pilgrim to the 2-0 lead in games.
“We were focused,” Ferguson said. “We were confident, and we try to stay confident no matter who we play. We just try to keep the focus up and play our best.”
The Tigers, who had been loud and intense through the first two games, didn’t have the same sort of fire in the third game, and the Pats took advantage. They took the lead for good at 8-7, then increased it until Zuffoletti put the game out of reach with his serving.
“I don’t know, I just started to feel it,” Zuffoletti said. “Swing away.”
Ahead 24-13, White served a ball that Tolman eventually hit into the net, ending the match and bringing Pilgrim as close as the school has ever been to winning a boys’ volleyball championship.
Barrington, which has also never won a title, is now the final hurdle in Pilgrim’s quest for the ultimate prize.
The two teams didn’t play during the regular season, but they did scrimmage in an Injury Fund match before the season started. They split two games.
“I couldn’t have pictured a better match then how we played tonight,” McGiveron said “The funny thing is, we probably could have passed better. That’s scary to think about.”