The Lady Falcons took their lumps. In two previous trips to the Elite Eight state tournament, they walked out in tears — first, following a quarterfinal departure in 2009, then losing to Addison in the semifinals last year.
Thursday, top-ranked Donoho left the Pelham Civic Complex triumphant after defeating Addison in easily the most competitive final the tournament saw. The Lady Falcons won 19-25, 25-21, 20-25, 17-15.
“I am just extremely grateful and thankful to be a part of the program at Donoho and to have the opportunity to coach these young women,” Donoho coach Janice Slay said.
Her next comment prompted chuckles from tournament Most Valuable Player Rachel Matson and teammates Peyton Van Ekris and Grace Fink, both all-tournament team selections.
“They frustrate me at times,” Slay continued. “They make me extremely happy lots of times. But most of all, they always try to live up to what I ask them to do which is give their best. And today they did.”
Matson, a middle hitter, led the way for the Falcons with a team-best 20 kills, adding 25 digs, two aces and a block. Fink had 10 kills, 18 digs and 36 assists. Van Ekris contributed with eight kills, four digs, three blocks and an ace. Katie Swinford had 25 digs and two aces.
The Falcons gave their coach as well as their family and friends in attendance so much drama and suspense that they can save their money on movie tickets this weekend. Donoho had never trailed in the playoffs before dropping the first and third games against the Lady Bulldogs.
However, the Lady Falcons evened the match, winning the second and fourth games.
“We kind of just let it go like ‘Whatever. It’s a whole new game,’” Fink said of her team’s collective response after losing key games in the title match. “We have faith in each other to do it and we did it. We believe in each other.”
Donoho came out cooking in Game 5, building what seemed like a commanding 9-5 lead. But Addison would seize a golden opportunity with Matson confined to the back row to get back into the match. The Lady Bulldogs cut their deficit to one at 9-8 and led at 12-11 before Donoho, aided by a number of big kills from Matson and Van Ekris, would strike last.
With her team down 12-11 in the fifth game, Matson came up with three kills on four points to give the Lady Falcons the lead at 14-13. They failed to convert their first two match points, putting a serve into the net to tie the score at 14 and dropping another point up 15-14 before a tip kill by Van Ekris clinched it for them.
Donoho was clicking on all cylinders, dictating the action on the court, just as Addison began to breakdown.
“We talked to them about playing the type of ball that we wanted to play and not the type of ball that they were playing,” Slay said. “We wanted to be aggressive with the ball.”
Slay reiterated the significance of Donoho’s win against Addison earlier in the season in the Donoho Invitational as having given her team the confidence boost it needed to oust the Lady Bulldogs in the championship match.
“From last year, them knocking us out, we were like, ‘Not again. Never will that happen to us’”, Matson said.
Van Ekris chimed in: “We just realized that we could beat them. If we just pushed ourselves hard enough, it could come true. We just thought of them as just another team, not the team that took us out in the state tournament last year, but just another team that we could beat.”
Morgan Ray led Addison with a game-high 23 kills, 10 blocks and six digs. Heather Baldwin added 33 assists, 19 digs and three aces. Lauren Lowery had 12 kills.
“We knew coming in it was going to be tough,” Addison coach Pam Wilkins said. “We worked really hard to get ready for them and it showed today. I thought we played well, especially with our youth.”
Now, championship in hand at the end of its road, Donoho can appreciate how far it’s come in three years under Slay.
“She’s brought unity and a lot of teamwork to this program,” Matson said. “Before, we were self-centered and played for ourselves. Now, we play for Donoho, the name on the front of our jerseys and not the one on the back.”
Nick Birdsong covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575. Follow him on Twitter @birds_word.