On its way to an undefeated season, the Pilgrim volleyball team navigated plenty of tough spots and developed a tried-and-true approach for dealing with those situations.
“We never focus on what happened in the past,” said senior Sean St. Jacques. “Every game we just have to start as full throttle as we can and just try to get ahead.”
Friday night, you had to wonder if the Pats would still be able to execute that plan. There was the big crowd, there was the intensity of the playoffs and, on the other side there was Central, a team that had shockingly pushed the Pats into a game five after losing the first two games.
But even with all that at play, the Pats delivered.
St. Jacques pounded five kills early in game five as the Pats raced to a 7-3 lead and never looked back en route to a match-clinching 15-6 victory.
“Like I said to the guys, we’ve been in enough of these matches,” said Pilgrim head coach Mike McGiveron. “Once a game five comes, my guys step up.”
This time, the performance earned the Pats a spot in the Division II semifinals. They were scheduled to play Tolman on Monday night, with results unavailable at press time.
Heading into Friday’s game, the Pats were confident. They hadn’t played Central in the regular season, but based on their 11-5 record, the Knights looked like Exeter/West Greenwich and West Warwick, whom the Pats beat two times each. Pilgrim also hadn’t lost a single game in any of its matches since May 15.
Central didn’t back down early on, but the Pats still seemed to be in control. Despite not playing their best, they won game one 25-20 and took game two 25-21.
On the bench, though, McGiveron knew the Pats were flirting with danger.
“All night, we didn’t pass that well,” McGiveron said. “That’s what it really was for us. Even when we won the first two, I don’t think it was there. We kind of got a lot of lucky points and they made some errors.”
The luck ran out in the next two games. Riding big performances by standouts Jonathan Rodriguez and Naroth Chao, Central rallied from a late two-point deficit to win game three 25-23. In game four, Central led by seven before Pilgrim got within two. Undeterred, the Knights won the next five points and went on to the 25-19 victory.
That set up the decisive game five. Despite their struggles, the Pats knew what to do.
“Every game starts off at zero,” St. Jacques said. “No matter who has the energy or who’s up, every game is a brand new game and it can be anyone’s game. That’s what we focus on.”
McGiveron adjusted the rotation to have St. Jacques, his senior hitter, on the front row early in game five. After the teams traded points in the early going, the move started paying off. Matt McCabe put down a kill to give Pilgrim a 3-2 lead then St. Jacques slammed down three kills in a row to put the Pats ahead 6-2. Rodriguez made it 6-3 with a kill for Central, but St. Jacques responded with another kill for the 7-3 cushion.
“If I play the same rotation, I don’t know if that happens,” McGiveron said. “I felt at the beginning of the game, I wanted Sean in there early. I wanted to put him into a position where he could be there for three rotations. By the time he went back to serve, we were up 7-3.”
And the fast start was just what the Pats needed. After a Chao kill made it 7-4, John Zuffoletti gave Pilgrim an 8-4 lead with a kill. Dan Colabella followed with a tip to an open spot before Jason Ferguson served up an ace. Colabella then capped a long point with a kill to make it 11-4.
From there, the Pats just had to hold on, and they had no trouble doing it. Zuffoletti and Christian White had kills, while Central committed two hitting errors to give the Pats the victory.
They celebrated – and then breathed a sigh of relief.
“That’s a tough team,” McGiveron said. “That’s one of the best serve-receive teams we’ve seen all year. I don’t think they had a receiving error all night. They passed the ball and they’ve got two kids who are really sound volleyball players. Hats off to them. We just somehow got out on the right end of this.”
St. Jacques led the way for the Pats with 26 kills. Colabella added 11 kills and eight blocks, McCabe chipped in 10 kills and seven blocks and Ferguson racked up 67 assists. The Pats also got solid play from White, Tilden Thao and Christian Fitta.
“They’re very resilient kids,” McGiveron said. “We didn’t block that well. We didn’t pass that well, but we did play defense. We backed up blocks. Tilden Thao was all over the place.”
After the game, the Pats turned their attention to the semifinals, where they were scheduled to take on Tolman, the No. 2 seed from Division II-North.
“It’s one of those things,” McGiveron said. “If you can get this out of the way, hopefully you play your best after that.”