By BRIAN JENNINGS
Points were tossed back and forth between Ridgefield and Southington in the fifth set, and the contest was tied, 6-6. A Tiger kill bounced just inside the line on the next serve to tip the scales, and Ridgefield went on a 4-1 run that threatened to end Southington’s volleyball season.
Lady Knight coach Rich Heitz called for a timeout with his team trailing, 11-7.
“In the huddle, they were like, ‘Guys we’re doing this,’” said Heitz.
All seemed lost for the Lady Knights volleyball team, but a Kelsea Allen kill ricocheted out of bounds off the fingers of a Ridgefield defender, and that woke the Southington crowd. Trailing, 11-8, Morgan Raymond served an ace off the Tiger’s back line.
The momentum had clearly shifted. Southington tied the set, 11-11, and rallied for match point. Raymond served another ball over the net and Ridgefield dug it out. The Tigers shifted the ball to their 6-foot-2 hitter, but Allen was there for the block.
Southington survived the Class LL quarterfinals.
Allen’s game-winning block and Raymond’s serving during the 8-0 run helped to advance the No.3-seed Knights (18-2) defeat No.6-seed Ridgefield (17-4), 3-2 (13-25, 25-20, 16-25, 25-16, 15-11), in five grueling sets, advancing them to the semifinals for the first time since 2012.
“I told them, ‘Guys, let’s get this close. If we put the pressure on them, they’ll fold.’ And they’ve done that,” said Heitz. “I told them after the first set that Ridgefield’s done that a lot. They’ve gotten up 2-0 on people, comeback, and struggle late in the match. When we were down 11-7, I told them to just chip one at a time and get it close. We’re in our gym. Take advantage of it. That’s a tough team to score eight points on.”
Sylwia Lewkowicz paced the attack with 26 kills (career and season high) on 47 attacks and anchored the defense with five blocks. But for most of the final run, the Knights didn’t have their star middle on the floor.
“Kelsea picked it up though and had a couple big kills,” said Heitz. “My concern was that they were going to start putting triple blocks up. They have a 6-foot-two-inch kid on the other side of the net against her, and she was drilling it through them. Her reach was higher than theirs, which was key.”
In the first set, Ridgefield took an early 4-0 lead, but Southington eventually tied the set, 6-6. A couple lead changes pushed it to 12-12, but the Knights would not be able to hold a serve and Ridgefield took the set.
Southington battled back from an early deficit in the second set and finished on a 15-11 run.
Ridgefield answered with a 21-12 run in the third set to regain the lead in the series, but Southington dominated from start to finish in the fourth set to force the series to five sets.
After the 8-0 run, Raymond (nine kills, 17 digs, 20 serves received) finished the night 16-for-17 serving with one ace.
“I did my best to just focus on the ball and the court,” said Raymond. “I tried to block out to block out everything else. I was a little stressed out, but I knew that I could do it. I thought we came together really well as a team. I’m really proud of us. It was really stressful, but it was also very fun. I love the competition like that. Everyone was working really well together.”
Allen had eight kills, and Lindsey Witte contributed five blocks. Emily Mankus scored six kills and 10 digs, and went 20-for-23 behind the line with five aces. Nicole Groll (20 digs), Stephanie Zera (38 assists, 10 digs), and Samantha Lohneiss (14 digs) contributed.
“We ran a lot through the middle. We didn’t pass as well as I thought we passed and did not serve as well,” the coach said. “We were long, which was odd. I think the kids were pumped up. We served a lot of long balls tonight. Usually when you’re missing, you’re missing right, left, or into the net. I think it was just the adrenaline, but we gutted it out.”
The Knights started the tournament by shutting out No.14-seed Simsbury (14-7), 3-0 (25-14, 25-20, 25-12), in the second round on Thursday at home, after receiving a first-round bye.
Groll (15 digs) went 15-for-17 from behind the line with six aces. Lohneiss (3 assists, 5 digs) went 11-for-15 serving with four aces. Mankus (3 kills, 11 digs) went 13-for-15 serving with a trio of aces.
Lewkowicz led the Knight offense with 11 kills. Allen (8 kills, 4 blocks), Zera (8 digs, 23 assists), and Raymond (8 digs) contributed.
Southington is set to take on No.10 Greenwich (16-4) in the lower half of the semifinals. Greenwich upset No.2 Amity (19-2), 3-1, in the quarterfinals. Should the Knights win, they’ll advance to face the winner of No.4 Cheshire (18-2) and No.9 Fairfield Ludlowe (17-4) at Foran High School on Wednesday, Nov. 18 at 6 p.m.
“I think we can play better than tonight, especially on the service game. If we go out and serve 90 percent, we’re going to do very well,” said Heitz. “We’re just going to take one step at a time. Now, the girls, at least, know they have their claim in the game. That means a possible trip to the state championship.”