ELYRIA — It appeared that Elyria Catholic’s unbeaten regular season was going to end Tuesday night.
Splitting the first two games and jumping out to several commanding leads in the third game, visiting Rocky River was poised to land the knockout blow to its West Shore aConference rival.
But the Panthers weren’t ready to concede.
They finished with a solid rally in the third game, which they lost, before dominating in the do-or-die fourth and fifth games. The Panthers iaamproved to 7-0 (5-0 WSC) with a wild 23-25, 26-24, 22-25, 25-12, a15-4 victory at the Coliseum.
Elyria Catholic coach Jen Lee said her team’s performance to end the third game was key to the turnaround.
“I had to make key substitutions there and count on some younger ones, and they came up to bat when they needed to,” she said. “It definitely turned the game around. I’ve got to commend Rocky River. They are a very scrappy team. They don’t have a superstar, but they’ve got great teamwork and they fought super hard.
“I know my girls came in here and thought it was going to be a rollover, and that’s a lesson learned from them, too. Like I said, (Rocky River) is a really, really fine team. I was really impressed with Rocky River.”
Rocky River (6-3, 3-2) gave Elyria Catholic all it could handle in two highly competitive games that the Pirates came very close to sweeping. They held serve with a 24-23 lead in the second game before a Kit O’Shaughnessy kill forced a game-tying sideout, which led to three unanswered Panthers points to earn the split.
With her team looking listless, it was O’Shaughnessy — the Panthers’ captain — who came up big to end the third game. On a 6-1 run that cut Rocky River’s lead from 23-16 to 24-22, O’Shaughnessy had four kills, and junior Rachel Duffield had two aces.
But needing two points to tie things up, libero Becca Pronesti — who led Elyria Catholic with 19 points, two aces and 17 digs — had a serve clip the top of the net and bounce back to Elyria Catholic’s side to give Rocky River the game-winning point.
“If we wouldn’t have been running a 6-2 (offense) and had Kit hitting, we would have been in big trouble,” Lee said. “We wouldn’t be where we’re at today. She’s our superstar. She does it all and she was our firepower today. She did an amazing job.
“Brooke Nedrich had to come in and play middle, and she did a fantastic job. This was Abbey Flowers’ second (game) back, and she gives great momentum to the team. Becca Pronesti is sweeping them up. Just a great job from all the girls today.”
The Panthers, using the same lineup they used to end the third game, set the tone in the fourth game by jumping out to an 11-4 lead. Nedrich had two kills, Flowers had a kill and a block and Duffield had an ace to highlight the opening run.
The closest Rocky River came was 16-10. From that point, Elyria Catholic hit the gas again and set up an all-or-nothing fifth game with a 9-2 run. O’Shaughnessy killed the final three points behind the serving of Marie Vasitas to close out the Pirates.
“We didn’t come out playing our game,” said O’Shaughnessy, who led the team with 20 kills and added 17 assists, 10 digs and six points with an ace. “We struggled a bit in the first two games, and in those last two games, we really wanted to keep our offense back and keep the momentum on our side. We really had more energy the last two games and played our game.
“The whole night, we really were down. We finally got the momentum we needed in the third game and we finally started playing like we normally play.”
Leading 8-4, the Panthers closed out the victory with seven unanswered points with Vasitas at the line. She finished with 14 points, an ace, 11 digs and a team-best 20 assists.
Duffield added nine kills, five points, two aces and eight digs, while Flowers had nine kills, a team-best four blocks and three block assists. Nedrich added eight kills, two blocks and one block assist.
Karissa McGrath stood out in the early portion of the match, finishing with eight kills, six points, two aces and two block assists.
“I’m just really proud of the girls,” Lee said. “Their face was in the mud, and they got back up and fought and hopefully learned a lesson from this.
“I said, ‘Let’s forget about this. Pretend it never happened. It’s over with, so let’s relax and play our game and let’s all stay focused.’ But, key substitutions were made to keep the energy up, and I think that was our turning point.”
For Rocky River, a team without any seniors, junior Mary Kate Krajcer had 15 kills and eight digs, junior Olivia Lloyd-George had 21 digs and junior Mindy Kurz had 30 assists to lead its effort.
“This was the best we’ve played all season,” Pirates coach Kelly Bennett said. “I thought our girls played phenomenal the first three games. Looking back, we had a chance to win Game 2, and after winning Game 3, we could have already been on the bus. But EC hung in there and made plays and got sideouts when they needed to.
“I think we just kind of ran out of a little gas physically (and) emotionally. We knew they were undefeated in the conference and we wanted to give them their first loss. But my kids fought really hard and we went down fighting.”
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.