Archmere reached deep down Thursday night when it mattered most, climbing out of a two-set hole to stun Padua, 3-2, in the state volleyball semifinal round at St. Mark’s High School. The Auks, seeded third in the playoffs, celebrated a service error by the Pandas that ended the marathon match. Set scores were 22-25, 21-25, 25-23, 25-22, 15-8.
The Auks (16-2) will defend its state title against Delaware Military Academy on Monday night at approximately 7 p.m. at the Bob Carpenter Center in Newark. The top-seeded and undefeated Seahawks advanced with a sweep of No. 5 Ursuline.
Archmere coach Mary Pat Kwoka praised her team’s resilience. “I’m not usually speechless, and when Kwoka’s speechless, it’s a wow, wow, wow, wow.”
Thursday night’s match, in front of a large and boisterous crowd, was a reversal of the regular-season match between the teams, in which Archmere won the first two sets, only to watch Padua claw back for the win. For a while on Thursday, it looked like the Pandas had Archmere’s number. But it was not to be.
After four very competitive games, Archmere dominated in the fifth. Leading 4-2, the Auks went on a five-point run and did not let Padua close the gap. Grace Merritt had three kills in the final set, including the one that sent it to match point.
Merritt said the passing and setting improved as the match wore on, and that was key. “Our team just really pulled it together.”
The teams were tied at 23 in the third set when Archmere’s Amy Thomson was blocked out of bounds, then Jessica Casino found a hole in the Padua defense to stave off elimination. The win spoiled an outstanding set by Padua’s sophomore hitter, Emily Jarome, who had nine kills during the frame, including three punishing spikes late.
The biggest deficit of the third for each team was four points. Ella Welsh and Emma Lucey teamed up to block the Auks’ Zoe Akoto to give Padua an 11-7 lead, and Archmere was up at one point, 20-16. Mengers and Merritt often clinched points for the Auks, but the defensive effort was also outstanding. Kwoka said her entire squad deserved credit for adjusting to help stop Jarome and Welsh, as well as on offense, as she changed up the setting and passing.
“Hats off to those kids,” she said. “What a wonderful group.”
Padua, getting contributions from a number of players, led by five midway through the fourth, and Pandas fans could sense victory. But the Auks had other ideas. A five-point run turned a three-point deficit into a two-point Archmere advantage at 19-17. Padua recovered to go ahead, 22-20, but the Auks scored the final five points, the last of which was a kill by Sami Mengers.
“We’re just working really hard,” Mengers said. “We knew Padua was going to be a really tough game, and obviously they came out and played their hearts out. But we’ve been practicing and been preparing for this game, and it just came together.”
The first two sets were just as close, the only difference being that Padua was able to seal the deal. The Pandas came out blazing, taking a 9-2 lead in the first with a seven-point run, the last a crushing kill by Jarome. Archmere rebounded with five straight of its own, with Akoto playing a key role. The set – and the entire match – was marked by long, crowd-pleasing rallies and stellar defense.
Consecutive kills by Mengers tied the set at 14, and by the time the Auks finished a six-point streak, they led, 17-14. The teams were tied at 20, 21 and 22, but Padua closed with three straight points, including Emma Lucey’s smash of an overpass to end it.
The teams were tied nine times in the second set, and the biggest lead was the final four-point margin. With the score knotted at 21, Padua hitters Welsh and Lauren Mellor had kills, and a Maddie Judge ace gave the Pandas the set.
Kwoka said the message was simple when her team was down two sets. “We gotta work harder. We have to work each point, we have to stay focused. We’ve got to do what we need to do. We can’t worry about our opponent. We’ve got to stay focused and trust ourselves, trust our trainings, and execute the game plan.”
Jarome led all players with 26 kills, and she added 31 digs. Mellor had 11 kills and 28 digs, while Welsh tacked six blocks on to her 11 kills. Judge had 43 digs. Padua concluded an outstanding season with a 14-4 mark. The Pandas will meet Ursuline in the consolation match against Ursuline on Monday at 5:30 p.m. at the Bob.
Akoto paced the Auks with 15 kills and 21 digs. Merritt had 10 kills; Mengers added seven to go along with her 26 digs. Tori Falasco had 36 digs, while Tori Mock delivered five aces.
Archmere will defend its crown against a familiar and formidable foe. The Auks and DMA are both members of the Diamond State Athletic Conference, and the Seahawks swept Archmere during the regular season. Both Merritt and Mengers used the word “amazing” to describe DMA, but they said their team will be ready on Monday.
“I know they’re going to come out to play, and we’re going to come out to play. It’s going to be a really good match,” Merritt said.
“We’re going to practice like crazy tomorrow and Saturday,” Mengers added. “We’ve been watching their film, and I’m sure they’ve been doing the same.”
Tickets to the final are available at diaa.ticketleap.com. They cost $8.