MADISON _ River Dell coach Dianne Furusawa was in the bleachers scouting when Madison defeated Ridgefield Park in a Group II quarterfinal earlier this week.
Furusawa was not impressed. She expected more.
As it turned out, the Dodgers were just off, very off, that day. Their play was deceiving. The Madison players understand why Furusawa thought they were lackluster and uninspired.
Forty-eight hours later, Madison returned to fine form and topped River Dell, 25-23, 25-16, to advance to the Group II final.
"Madison must have brought its 'A' game today," Furusawa said. "This is definitely not the team I saw. They were nonchalant, not swinging and letting free balls go over. Tonight, they swung well and put the ball down. They blocked well. We got timid."
Madison senior middle hitter Margy Taylor wasn't offended by Furusawa's initial assessment. Taylor and they Dodgers certainly were fortunate to hang on and beat Ridgefield Park, 28-26, 25-23.
"We started out shaky. We weren't aggressive," Taylor said. "We weren't scrappy. We had no energy. Many balls hit the floor that shouldn't have."
Senior outside hitter Olivia Alexander figured that River Dell "may have underestimated us."
Whatever the circumstances, it worked to the Dodgers' advantage. As subpar as they were on Tuesday, they were superb on Thursday, Nov. 14.
"We had to be a different team today," Madison coach Stephen Fenton said. "We pushed the ball and didn't attack. If I could get them on track, we'd play much better. We surprised them, I think, because of the way we played in our previous game."
The Dodgers (27-4) have not lost a match on their home court this season. That, too, was a factor as they pushed their record at home to 15-0.
By triumphing, second-seeded Madison earned the right to vie for a state title. The Dodgers will clash with Sterling on Saturday, Nov. 16 at 1:30 p.m. at William Paterson University.
Madison played for a group title in 2010, falling to Bogota. When Fenton coached at Bloomfield, his team claimed the Group IV championship in 1999.
"It's always nice to win," said Taylor (6 kills, 4 blocks, 8 digs). "We've come up short too many times. This time, it was our turn to come out on top and make another team feel the way we felt. We went to three sets with teams like Kinnelon and Montville and lost. It's great being on the other end."
No doubt, this was perhaps Madison's best effort this season. The Dodgers played with purpose, employed teamwork and committed a mere 15 errors, four below their average.
The first set was tied 11 times. Taylor, instructed by Fenton "to be around all the time," was a major factor. So were all of the Dodgers, who hustled and battled.
Taylor, along with outside hitter Alise Bassolino (8 kills, 3 digs) and Alexander (8 kills, 10 digs, ace), dominated at the net. At 22-22 in the first game, Madison kept its composure. River Dell pulled ahead 23-22 when one of the Dodgers served long. A kill by Bassolino brought it even again, 23-23. An error by River Dell put Madison in front, 24-23, before Taylor nailed a kill to the sideline to close out the set.
In the second set, Madison raced out to a 12-5 lead. Alexander helped open the gap to 8-2 with six consecutive service points, including an ace.
Alexander and Taylor each made an excellent play to push Madison's advantage to 12-5. Alexander, playing middle net at that juncture, made a great get, racing behind the left corner of the court. Eventually, Taylor put down a kill.
"I like to think that I'm fast," Alexander said. "This was our last chance. In the beginning, we talked about going for everything. We had to give it our all. I just hustled to get to the ball."
Shortly after, for 13-6, Taylor made a tumbling save of a ball. Bassolino then put it away.
River Dell closed the gap a bit yet could get no closer than five. Taylor made a block for 22-13. Bassolino had a kill for 23-14. The match concluded with Bassolino's ace.
Ally Shahidi, a junior middle hitter, did not make an error all match. Shahidi finished with eight service points, four kills and seven digs. Katherine Clark, a sophomore setter, had 23 assists.
For the visitors, Kalette deMarrais had 10 assists. Lauren Messings totaled 14 digs. Christine Woods, a freshman middle blocker, had four kills. Three other players had three kills apiece.
"This is so amazing," Alexander said. "I was nervous coming in. I couldn't focus on school. We got here early, about 5 p.m. I'm so excited about Saturday. If we play like we did today, we have an excellent shot."
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