RANDOLPH _ Just like the first game, defending champion West Morris was on a late roll, threatening Roxbury, which once had a seemingly comfortable nine-point lead.
The Wolfpack inched closer and closer, cutting their deficit to five points. Then, as if there wasn't enough tension, dominant senior outside hitter Lauren Kornmann had to leave the court after chipping her teeth and cutting her lower lip while trying to make a save.
While Kornmann iced her injury, the Gaels continued to sweat and persevere and, ultimately, defeated West Morris, 25-21, 25-22, at Randolph High School to claim the first Morris County Volleyball Tournament title in school history. A week before, Roxbury's girls soccer team captured the MCT crown.
"This is a great feeling," senior opposite Stephanie Bogdan said. "Oh, my God... I'm so happy we pushed ourselves. This really is great."
Knowing Kornmann was hurting was difficult yet Roxbury, making things scary in keeping with the theme of Halloween, didn't fret. Even when West Morris got to two, 24-22, no way were the Gaels backing down.
"It really was a little frightening," Bogdan said. "We took deep breaths. We have each other's backs. We did it for Lauren."
Junior midfielder Reghan Palanchi said she and her teammates "trusted in each other" and "were determined to get the job done."
The last sequence featured an excellent get by libero Andie Ackerman and was sealed by Denay Sicsko's exceptionally well-placed kill. Then it was time to whoop it up. The celebration was on the court then switched to an area near the folded-up bleachers where everyone gathered around Kornmann.
"I can't put it into words. I just can't," Roxbury coach Beth Grasso said. "We came in with a plan and the belief we would win. West Morris is so solid and very well coached. Jim (Balella) is incredible. They were actually supposed to be rebuilding this year."
The Wolfpack registered 25-13, 17-25, 25-19 and 25-22, 25-9 wins earlier this month over Roxbury. The Gaels realized it would take a number of elements to come out on top after viewing film of their setbacks to the Wolfpack this fall.
"Keys to the plan were to dominate the net and take away their hitters," Grasso said. "We had to position ourselves to their tendencies. We needed to swing hard and aggressively. We did those things but all of the credit goes to Central. It's not over until it's over. They keep coming at you."
That never-say-die attitude was evidenced by the fact that West Morris recovered from double-digit deficits in each game. Kornmann, named Most Valuable Player, was on from the start and kept pounding the ball, compiling 12 kills, four digs, seven blocks and two aces. Roxbury put together several unanswered significant runs. That didn't faze the Wolfpack, who fought back in each game.
"I got a little nervous," Bogdan said. "We got through it. We took it one game at a time."
The Gaels raced out to a 12-point advantage in the opening set. The gap eventually closed to three, 24-21, when Roxbury hit a serve long and the Wolfpack's Alexa Shello got a point. Junior middle Haley Cook put an end to the anxiety with a kill to the rear of the court.
In the second set, the Gaels settled in quickly and went up, 18-10. West Morris chipped away, gaining steam on several kills by Shello and some Roxbury errors. Kornmann's all-out, face-first dive for the errant ball enabled the Wolfpack to get to four, 23-19. Her attempt sent the ball into the bleachers.
Sydney Dunsmore had a kill for the Gaels to get their lead to 24-19. A failed service by Roxbury and a kill by West Morris put the score at 24-21. Another miscue by the Gaels and the Wolfpack inched closer, 24-22. It was during the ensuing timeout that Sicsko offered to wrap up the match.
"Denay said, 'I can do this,'" Grasso said. "I'm so proud of her and of all of my players."
She did and now the Gaels have a place in the MCT history books after upending West Morris, which had prevailed in 12 of the previous 15 finals.
"Without Lauren, we still had confidence," Palanchi said. "We trusted in each other. We got the job done."
The day was made more special by a pre-match activity in which each player received a note of encouragement from a parent. Palanchi's note, written by her father, Mark, advised her to go "point by point" and "play every point like it's your last."
Bogdan's was penned by her mother, Diane, who wished her luck and told her "to never give up." Diane Bogdan also reminded her daughter that it was "the Year of Stephanie" because she's a senior.
"We found the notes on the desks and opened them," Palanchi said. "We cried a lot and passed the tissues around."
The tears following the match, though, were all jubilant ones. Roxbury accomplished what seemed impossible.
"We worked so hard for this moment and we have it," Palanchi said. "We didn't worry about who they were and just hit the ball down. We write down goals before the season and this was one of them. Now it's lifted off our chests."
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