It just seemed like the ball moved slower on the other side of the net.
The two Section II teams vying for New York State Public High School Athletic Association volleyball championships at the Glens Falls Civic Center on Sunday ran into opponents whose defense got to nearly every ball, and both Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake and Johnstown were swept into runner-up status.
“I tell you, everything we gave them, they gave it back,” Burnt Hills coach Gary Bynon said. “They deserve to be the champions. They are a great volleyball team, and I’m happy we were here and we went out and did everything we could. They made plays crashing into hockey boards and throwing volleyballs over.”
The boards that normally enclose the hockey rink are set back a good distance from the end lines of the court, and a couple of times the Spartans’ opponent, Section V champion Pittsford Sutherland, used every square inch of space available to track down balls that were thought long lost by the crowd, scrambling for points and eventually beating Burnt Hills, 25-18, 25-16, 25-14.
However, one of the longest points, a potential will-breaker late in the third set, showed just how determined the Spartans were, despite the odds against a comeback. After a Burnt Hills spike that was dug up, but sent flying off toward the first row of seats, the Knights kept their composure and their legs, got a player to the ball right in front of the boards, and sent it back into play.
“Then they made that play from the hockey boards back there, and that’s tough,” Bynon said. “As a player, that’s tough. It’s just a battle, but they keep playing.”
They kept playing, and senior outside hitter Kathleen Schurman finished the point with a kill.
“We knew even if we put a good ball over, they were setting it back,” said Schurman, an all-tournament selection. “That point where we thought it was gone, but they got it back over, we knew we couldn’t give up, no matter what. If we wanted to give ourselves a chance, we couldn’t stop, and we had to do everything we could.”
The Spartans had started that point trailing, 22-12.
The Knights weren’t just tough on defense. They also had tournament MVP Luisa Schrimer swinging a hammer at outside hitter. The 6-foot-2 senior planted four of her team’s final nine points and was difficult to manage all day.
“We really focused on putting up a big, strong block against her,” Schurman said. “Even though we know she’s good, we knew we could get pieces of it. Jaleah Owens, our middle, she did an amazing job blocking. She was nice and strong at the net, which gave our defense a chance, too.”
“We know she can hit around a big block,” said junior setter Jessica Dillon, “but at the end of the day, if we can read her and get around her, we dug her a few times and picked up on the things she was doing; we were able to play against her, even though she’s that good.”
The third game ended the most lopsided of the three, but the Spartans spent more of that game than the two previous right on the Knights’ tails. Exiting a timeout, Dillon set up Natalie Schurman — also named to the all-tournament team — for a kill. Then after a Sutherland miss-hit, Burnt Hills had climbed within three at 13-10. Then, however, the Knights scored nine of the next 11 points to pull away to 22-12.
“We were just telling one another we had to believe in one another,” Dillon said. “We could do it. We battled them. Every point we played against them, they battled for it to win it. Maybe they came out on top, but we were still fighting them for every point.”
Kathleen Schurman finished the match with seven digs and six kills, while Natalie Schurman had eight digs, five kills and an ace. Dillon had 18 assists, 10 service points, an ace, a solo block and combined with a teammate on three other blocks. Owens was strong in the middle with three blocks, and Molly Gallagher had 10 points and an ace.
Three of the last four Class A state championships have been contested by these two teams, with Sutherland winning in 2010 and Sunday, Burnt Hills winning in 2012 for their fifth title in the last 12 seasons. The Spartans also won in 2011. This year, Burnt Hills finished 25-5 and reached the finals for the ninth time in those 12 seasons.
“We’re proud of the season we’ve had,” Bynon said. “You know, 20 teams arrive in Glens Falls, five teams leave happy. But we’re not unhappy; we’re proud.”
Another team that left Glens Falls without too many tears, though without the top prize, Johnstown took some pride in making it to the finals for the first time. The Lady Bills (22-6) had been to the state semifinals often in recent years, but had never had much success in pool play. The last two years, they had gone 0-12 in pool play, but this season, they finished strong with a sweep of perennial power John Glenn to earn their way into the finals.
“When we won our first game, everyone knew that the curse was broken,” said junior outside hitter Annie Stock, an all-tournament selection for Class B. “Then we won, after that. Coming this far is really big for us.”
The Lady Bills, though, ran into an Owego Free Academy squad that played nearly flawless defense. The Raiders won, 25-12, 25-11, 25-12.
“Not that we were making mistakes, but they didn’t make any mistakes. [Saturday in pool play] it was clear that they had great defense,” Johnstown coach Heather McGuire said. “They were getting balls up that have been going down all season for my girls. They [the Lady Bills] were saying, ‘What’s open? Where’s the spot?’ and there really wasn’t a spot open, so the credit goes to their defense.”
Owego, the Section IV champ, set the tone from the start, running out to an 8-2 Game 1 lead. Johnstown was even with the Raiders, 5-5, in Game 2 before Owego scored 13 of the next 15 points.
“Our talk [entering the third game] was about how we came this far and that we didn’t want to go down without a good fight,” Stock said. “We had to lay our hearts on the line and dive for everything.”
Johnstown’s hitters were getting good sets from all-tournament setter Jerica Holland, and its defense was getting under a lot of the Raiders’ hits, but there were very few spots for the hitters to place the ball where a Raider couldn’t reach it.
Owego put any doubts to rest with a 12-0 run in Game 3, pulling ahead, 17-4.
Kills were hard to come by, but Hannah Breda managed five of them. Holland had six assists and eight digs, and Stock had seven digs and three kills.
Madison Smrtic finished with 23 digs, while Alyssa Nellis had 18 digs and three blocks, and Morgan Catania dug up another 11.
“This is the best group of girls I’ve had, to date, right now,” McGuire said. “I’m so proud. They were classy, they supported each other, they had fun and they were smiling to the last point. My expectations have been fulfilled, completely, with these girls.”