Sauquoit – Ask any player in any sport in Section III, and they will tell you the same thing: the hardest part about being a student athlete is ending your season with a loss in the sectional tournament. Most of them will play every night like there is no tomorrow, only to fall heartrendingly short of that yellow banner.
The only thing that could possibly be worse is to lose in the sectionals on your home court, and that is what happened to the Sauquoit Valley Indians on Tuesday night. The Indians fought valiantly in a seesaw battle with the Port Byron Panthers, but unfortunately, the seventh seed in Class C fell in five sets, watching their dreams of a sectional banner fall just two points short in the final set.
“It hurts,” senior setter Brittney Kuhn said of what will be her last game on the court at Sauquoit Valley Middle School. “But, it was nice to be home for our final game.”
“Our conversation at the end was that you couldn’t hang your heads on this game,” Indians head coach Meghan Welcher said. “One loss doesn’t discredit the season they had.”
There was no way anyone would be hanging their heads on Tuesday, as the match was a back and forth battle from the word go. Neither team could grab more than a one-point lead in the first set before junior setter Mary Ann Lewandrowski gave the Indians the early lead with a five-point rally. It would be a set of streaks from that point forward, as a 3-0 streak by Port Byron senior outside hitter Allison Ryan allowed the Panthers to tie up the game.
Sauquoit Valley would put together three straight points of their own, but the tenacious blocking combo of juniors Nadia Edley and Emily Ryan kept the Panthers in the game for most of the first set.
“I’m extremely proud of my team,” Edley said. “We just came together tonight and I’m so proud of them.”
Unfortunately, the Panthers could not keep it up, as Sauquoit would get three of the last five points in the set, brought home with a huge spike by senior hitter Gianna Arcuri. Arcuri’s spike proved too hot for the Panthers, and the Indians were able to walk away with the first set, 25-23.
The second set would start out just as close as the first, with both teams splitting the first four points. However, the Indians’ offense would come alive after that, taking six of the next seven points to build a six-point lead. The Panthers couldn’t bring it any closer, as junior lead blocker Kiley Lazarek kept any errant balls from dropping to the floor. However, the Panthers ran into a stroke of luck, picking up rallies of four and five points, led by the serving of senior outside hitter Marissa Recckio. Port Byron would maintain that lead on blocks by Ryan to keep the lead around five points for most of the rest of the set.
Coming out of a Sauquoit Valley time out, Edley and Ryan went right back to work, maintaining an imposing presence at the net for the Panthers. Their timely blocks would allow Port Byron to build an eight-point lead. It looked like they would coast to a game-tying set-point, but a small four-point rally by the Indians would make it a lot closer than anticipated. The Panthers would eke out a victory in the set, however, as a double hit by Sauquoit Valley ended the set at 25-20 for the visitors.
“We had our moments where we just weren’t passing well,” Port Byron head coach Stacie Hirsh said. “Push came to shove, we came together and got it done.”
The Panthers certainly came together in the third set, getting four out of the first five points to jump out to an early lead. From there, it would yet again be a back and forth game, with both teams putting together small rallies of at least two, but neither one jumping out to a lead of more than three.
The Indians would finally begin to pull away, running Edley ragged from one side of the court to the other. When the dust settled, Sauquoit Valley would put together a six-point rally and score seven of the next nine to put together a 14-8 lead. Port Byron would not say die, however, getting a 5-2 run of their own to cut the lead to four at 17-13. It would be Lewandrowski, however, who would lead the charge for the Indians, taking a five point rally at the end to put the third set in the Indians’ column, 25-16 and put the Panthers on the brink of elimination.
However, the Panthers came roaring back in the fourth set, taking a very quick 6-0 lead on serves from Recckio again. Her serves forced the Indians to play the ball into the net, and long hits hurt them as well, ballooning the lead to 9-1 and 12-2 before Sauquoit Valley was able to put a rally together.
Led by Lewandrowski, the Indians did just that. They would pick up nine of the next ten points to cut the lead to three, 14-11. However, the Panthers would maintain their lead due to timely blocks by Ryan and crushing spikes by Edley to not only keep the lead where it was, but bring it back up to eight as well. A small Sauquoit Valley rally fizzled out just two points in, and with the 25-17 victory, Port Byron was able to force a fifth set.
“We were just like, ‘we just need to get it over,’” Edley said. “It was all about letting the other team make the mistakes.”
From the outset, it looked like the Panthers were getting the mistakes they needed after the two teams split the first six points of the final set. Port Byron would take the early lead, though, as a rally led by server Olivia Martens produced five quick points, while another rally by Ryan would allow the Panthers to jump out to an 11-4 lead. The lead would get get even bigger, getting to 14-5 before the Indians took a time out to collect themselves.
“We just had to keep a positive attitude,” Kuhn said. “We had to push and play harder.”
“We talk a lot about making sure we take care of our contact,” Welcher said of the pep talk she gave her team. “They’ve come back from huge deficits before. When you start to build that rally, riding that wave of energy is how you do it.”
That wave of energy became a tidal wave that washed over the incredulous Panthers, as Sauquoit Valley put together a 9-0 rally, led by Lewandrowski yet again, that cut the lead to one. An ace by junior Morgan Screeder would give the Indians their first lead of the set. It would not last long, however, as yet another seesaw set of points gave the Panthers the late lead. Finally, as it had been all night, Ryan and Edley put the game away for Port Byron, picking up the last three points on the serving line to put the Panthers in the quarterfinals.
“What can you say as a coach?” Hirsh said of her team’s performance in the last set. “You hope that they play their best, and these girls delivered tonight.”
“It meant so much,” Edley said. “We never expected to get past the second round. We did it for the team and for the seniors.”
For the seniors on the other side, however, their season that had started with high expectations ended in tears on their own home court, even from their own head coach.
“They’re leaders on the team…they’ve put in a tremendous amount of work,” Welcher said. “They’ll go on and do great things. This doesn’t define who they are but this will help them become who they want to be.”
With the win, Port Byron will be back in the Mohawk Valley sooner rather than later. Their opponent will be just as, if not more daunting, than the seventh-seeded Indians: the undefeated, second-seeded Little Falls Mounties, who swept Weedsport in their first round matchup on Tuesday.
“We don’t care,” Hirsh said of their opponents, who have swept through the Center State Conference with relative ease. “Even if they are good, we at our best can win. That’s what we do.”
Port Byron Panthers 3, Sauquoit Valley Indians 2
Section III Class C First Round Game
Panthers 23 25 16 25 25
Indians 25 20 25 17 23
Port Byron Panthers
Allison Grudzien: 6 digs.
Allison Ryan: 8 kills, 1 assist, 7 digs.
Rileigh Gray: 1 ace, 2 digs.
Nadia Edley: 14 kills, 6 blocks, 7 digs.
Jessica Suslik: 2 digs.
Emily Ryan: 1 ace, 1 kill, 3 assists, 4 blocks.
Chelsea Rooker: 1 assist, 1 dig.
Erica Jones: 1 dig.
Marissa Recckio: 5 aces, 5 kills.
Olivia Martens: 2 aces, 9 kills, 24 assists, 3 digs.
Miranda Aldrich: 1 ace.
Sauquoit Valley Indians
Julia Prichard: 3 kills, 6 digs.
Rachel Madden: 2 digs.
Kassie Berry: 1 ace, 1 kill, 15 digs.
Mary Ann Lewandrowski: 4 aces, 17 assists, 17 digs.
Sydeny Gifford: 1 assist, 1 dig.
Kacey Simmons: 1 ace, 4 kills, 10 digs.
Morgan Screeder: 1 dig.
Kylie Mierek: 1 kill, 1 block, 1 dig.
Mandy Brennan: 4 kills, 2 blocks, 2 digs.
Kimmi Whittaker: 1 ace, 11 kills, 1 block, 1 dig.
Gianna Arcuri: 2 aces, 13 kills, 1 assist, 3 blocks, 1 dig.
Kiley Lazarek: 4 kills, 1 assist, 2 blocks, 6 digs.
Paige Harris: 1 ace, 13 digs.