It was going to be a good speech. Mike McGiveron certainly had plenty of time to think about it. His Pilgrim volleyball team was about to be down 2-1 in Tuesday’s match against Exeter/West Greenwich. The message would be to leave the first three games in the past and focus on winning the next two.
But as many times as McGiveron got that speech ready, he never had to use it.
EWG had game point 10 times in a marathon game three, but the Pats staved off all of them, then suddenly surged to a 34-32 victory and a 2-1 lead of their own. They went on to win game four 25-17, clinching the 3-1 victory and running their league best record to 11-0.
For a team that’s thrived in tough situations, this may have been the best magic act yet.
“One of the game points, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Alright, if we don’t fight through this, we’ve just got to go on to the next one. We’ll still have life after that. Anything can happen,’” McGiveron said. “The resiliency of this team is just crazy. When you have a team with leadership like we have, they’re going to play through every point, no matter what the score is.”
Pilgrim and EWG went to five games when they met on April 12, one of three five-game matches the Pats have played this season. On Tuesday, Pilgrim was in control early, winning seven of eight points midway through game one and rolling to a 25-19 win.
But EWG, who’s in third place at 9-3, came back to win game two 25-19 then never trailed en route to a 24-20 lead in game three.
That’s when things got crazy.
Pilgrim staved off the first game point with a kill by John Zuffoletti. On the next point, after Matt McCabe came up with a block of Matt Sevegny, the Scarlet Knights committed a hitting error to make it 24-22. Zuffoletti than put down another kill to make it 24-23. EWG tried pushing the ball to the back line on the next point, but the ball went out of bounds, tying the game at 24-24.
From there, it was as back-and-forth as a game can get. With a big crowd getting louder and louder, it was about as intense as a game can get, too.
A hitting error gave Pilgrim a 25-24 lead, but EWG stayed alive with a kill by Jake Laperche. After a kill by Christian White put the Pats back in front 26-25, EWG got a kill to tie the game again.
Sean St. Jacques put Pilgrim ahead with a kill, but this time EWG had two answers, getting a kill by Laperche and a service point to go up 28-27.
Staring game point in the face again, the Pats still weren’t worried.
“We’re used to it by now,” Zuffoletti said. “We took this team to five, we went to five against a bunch of other teams. That’s how we pulled it together in the end. We have a lot of experience in tough games. I don’t think any of us really feel the pressure. We’re just used to it.”
But there was a lot of pressure – EWG had game point five more times.
Still, Pilgrim found a way.
St. Jacques had kills to hold off the first two game points, and Colabella handled the next one with a kill, tying the match at 30-30. After Sevegny landed a kill to make it 31-30, Zuffoletti pushed a ball to the back corner to tie the game. Sevegny followed with an emphatic kill, but McCabe answered with a big hit of his own, making it 32-32.
Then the Pats went on the offensive.
St. Jacques came up with a block on the next point to give Pilgrim its first lead since 27-26. With Zuffoletti serving, EWG sent the next ball back over, and setter Jason Ferguson put up a good one for St. Jacques, who slammed the ball down to give Pilgrim the remarkable 34-32 victory.
“The first time we played them, we were up 23-17 and blew a lead and gave them eight straight points,” McGiveron said “I think we got a little retribution for that tonight.”
And the Pats made sure their dramatic game three victory didn’t go to waste. After falling behind 3-1 in game four, they got a block from Colabella that sparked a run of six straight. McCabe added a kill and a block, and White also had a kill as part of the burst.
The Knights still weren’t done, and they won seven of the next eight points to go up 10-8.
But then Pilgrim took charge. St. Jacques landed kills on back-to-back points to tie the game. Great saves by White and Zuffoletti led to a pair of kills by McCabe, and EWG couldn’t return the next two serves from White. Another kill by St. Jacques capped a seven-point run that made it 15-10.
After a service error, the Pats won five straight on two kills by St. Jacques, one by Colabella and two hitting errors. That made it 20-11 and the Pats cruised the rest of the way. Leading 22-17, they won the final three points on EWG errors.
Just like that, the Pats had themselves another victory. St. Jacques led the charge for Pilgrim with a huge game. The senior tallied 31 kills and five blocks.
“Sean was just himself. I always tell [Ferguson] you know who to go to,” McGiveron said. “He can read blocks. He had every kind of hit possible. He had a changeup in the middle of the court. He had a cutter which beat a kid. He’s the best player I’ve ever coached. I can’t say enough about him.”
Colabella added 14 kills and 10 blocks, while Zuffoletti had 17 kills and 18 digs.
Though they don’t go down on any stat sheets, the Pats also excelled on difficult plays. Several times, they made diving saves on balls that looked destined for the floor.
“You could have a play that you think would be the easiest thing in the world and we’ll mess it up,” McGiveron said. “And then, on balls I think are down, you’ve got someone coming across and digging it. I can’t explain it. That’s volleyball.”
While the mood was celebratory after the victory, there were lessons to be learned for the stretch run. At the top of the list is Pilgrim’s tendency to fall behind.
“We’ve got to stop getting down early in games, because we just keep digging a hole,” McGiveron said. “Game three tonight, we were fortunate to get out of it.”
The Pats will need to be at their best as they near the end of the regular season. They’ll host fourth place West Warwick tonight at 6:30 p.m. The Wizards took them to five games in their last meeting.
Next week, Pilgrim plays fifth-place Scituate and second-place Cranston West.
“We’ve got a tough team in here Thursday,” McGiveron said. “West Warwick took us to five last time, so it’ll be another one where we have to be on top of our game. The following week, we’ve got two more tough ones. It’s a tough stretch right here.”