WAYNE _ Mount Olive was successful on its first journey into unfamiliar territory, racking up its first Morris County Tournament championship.
The Marauders continued streaking after that, making it all the way to the Group III final.
Naturally, there were high hopes and a desire to make more history but top-seeded Old Tappan, relying on experience and a significant height advantage, topped second-seeded Mount Olive, 25-21, 25-14, in the title match at William Paterson University on Saturday, Nov. 12.
The Group III crown was the second in a row for the Golden Knights. Old Tappan (22-1) has claimed four titles since 2010 and appeared in 19 finals since the tournament's inception in 1982.
"This is a second home to them," Mount Olive coach Lee Clowers said of cavernous WPU Recreation Center. "Old Tappan has been here often. I can't replicate this. Maybe we were a little overwhelmed by the atmosphere here. This is the biggest stage for volleyball in the state of New Jersey. The girls played as well as the possibly could and I'm very proud of them."
Despite the setback, the Marauders put in a stellar showing, rallying from several eight-point deficits in the opening set and staying within striking distance for half of the second set.
And, yes, the Mount Olive players were uneasy for the early part of the final.
"It was nerve wracking to see all of the people," Marauders junior outside hitter Britney Rivera said. "I tried not to think about the other team. I just wanted to go out there and do my best."
It was the same for sophomore setter Isabella Soriano, who was on edge, too, prior to the match and for a portion of the opening set.
"Being the first team from our school to get here is really cool," Soriano said. "It was exciting but nerve wracking. I was very nervous. I think we were tentative when we began playing. We got in a groove for awhile then we lost that feeling. It was still a crazy experience."
Old Tappan, led by junior Julia Passante, found it difficult to pull away. Up 14-12, the Golden Knights made their move, reeling off five consecutive points with Isabella Ash serving. Mount Olive made errors during that stretch, hitting long and wide while Passante had a pair of kills.
The Golden Knights kept pushing and extended their advantage to 23-15. However, the Marauders (25-3) battled back, scoring six of the next seven points and closed within three, 24-21. Rivera played a key role during that span. A long kill attempt by Mount Olive concluded the set.
"There was urgency in that set," Soriano said. "There was more heart. We're not a team to give up and it showed. We fell behind but kept playing. We had the momentum for a little bit. We had a chance."
In the second game, Old Tappan did not have a lengthy run until the very end when it strung together five points to close out the match. Mount Olive, which received 14 assists and three digs from Soriano, seemed more comfortable and kept fighting. Clowers, though, noted that "we were out of our system quite a bit."
"We couldn't get the ball to Isabella," he said. "We couldn't change our play sets."
The outcome didn't seem to matter. By pushing their season to the limit, the Marauders achieved another first and put their sport at the forefront.
"We had more and more supporters as the season went on," Soriano said. "We got energy from them. I'll remember how united we were. We're very close. Volleyball became more popular at our school. It's a big thing now and I'm so glad."
Junior outside hitter Annie Karle (9 kills, 6 digs) relished the entire experience. Passante finished with 11 kills and Maya Illovsky had nine.
"Being here was so great and no one can take that away," Karle said. "The atmosphere, the big gym. I thought we could come from behind. We've done it in the past."
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