AYER -- Over the past four years, the Ayer-Shirley volleyball team has held the upper hand in their brewing rivalry with Groton-Dunstable on the volleyball court. The Lady Panthers had not dropped a game, let alone a match, to their upstart rivals just 7 miles down the road. On Tuesday, the streak continued, but the match proved to be an instant classic.

It was a back-and-forth contest from the opening whistle until the final kill as the two squads exchanged games, leading to a decisive fifth game. Much like the entire match, the teams traded runs, but in the end Ayer-Shirley had the last word. Behind a finishing 4-0 kick, the Lady Panthers took the final game 15-12 to claim a 19-25, 25-23, 21-25, 25-15, 15-12 match victory.

For Ayer-Shirley, the win moves them to 4-1 overall, 3-1 in league play and was a much-needed bounce back from their first loss.

"This was a great way for us to come back from our loss to Nashoba and the girls showed a lot of spirit in climbing out of a 2-1 hole to get the win," said Lady Panthers coach Donna Ferreira. "Win or lose, this was a great high school match and I thought the level of play on both sides was outstanding throughout. It is great to come away with the win and we can build off the experience of this game going forward."

On the other side, the Lady Crusaders fell to 6-2 on the season and 4-2 in league play, but coach Lisa LaPierre saw a lot of positives in the losing effort.


"We have never even won a game against Ayer-Shirley, and the girls really were primed for today's game, but we just need to find more consistency on both ends right now," said LaPierre. "I thought everyone on the floor gave me everything they had. We had some amazing runs of play throughout the day, but in the end they just made one or two more plays than we did. Regardless of the outcome, this was an incredible match to be a part of and we will get better as a team because of this."

Facing an 11-10 deficit in game one, Groton-Dunstable turned the momentum to their side when Leanne Mueller (18 kills, three blocks) came up with a block to end a long rally, drawing even at 11-11. The Lady Crusaders then reeled off a 7-1 run behind four service points from Ludo Gruttadauria to take an 18-12 lead and never looked back. Mueller closed things out with a kill off a set from Rose O'Malley to give her squad a 25-19 first game win.

In game two, the teams exchanged runs throughout as neither team could grab control. Shanna DeBalsi (14 kills) came up with five straight service points, keyed by a kill and block from Anna Peck to give Ayer-Shirley a 10-6 lead. Groton-Dunstable responded with a 5-1 run behind a pair of aces from O'Malley to get within one at 17-16.

The teams then traded points, ending up tied at 21-21 when Mueller came up with a block at the net. Clara Watson then delivered two service points for the Lady Panthers to open up a 23-21 edge. A kill by Shannon Spang drew the Lady Crusaders within one at 24-23, but an unforced error gave Ayer-Shirley the game, as they picked up a 25-23 win to knot the match at 1-1.

Holding a 4-3 advantage in the third game, Groton-Dunstable reeled off a 7-1 spurt behind the service of Spang who came up with four points, including two aces to make it 11-4. The Lady Panthers responded with 11 of the next 16 points, keyed by four service points from DeBalsi to draw with a point at 16-15.

Each team came up with four-point runs as the Lady Crusaders continued hold a one-point advantage at 22-21, but Riley Rogers came up with a kill off a Spang feed. Groton-Dunstable regained the serve and O'Malley came up with a pair of points, keyed by kills from Mueller and Spang to close out the game and make it 2-1.

It looked as if the Lady Crusaders were on their way to taking control of the fourth game when they came up with a kill to make it 6-2. But a net violation was called, giving the point to Ayer-Shirley and sparking a run that put the game away. DeBalsi was dominant, picking up 12 service points and three aces, Clara Watson had three kills and two blocks, while Emma Sheils had six sets as the Lady Panthers scored 22 of the final 32 points to claim game four 25-15 and set up a winner-take-all fifth game. 

Using the momentum from the previous game, Ayer-Shirley ran out to an 8-3 lead behind four service points by Anna Peck and two kills from Watson. But Groton-Dunstable had an answer once again, coming up with a 9-3 kick to grab the advantage. Rogers had three service points while Mueller picked up three kills to give the Lady Crusaders a 12-11 edge.

With the match in the balance, Erika Esielionis stepped to the service line in a 12-12 game and delivered a pair of winners to give the Lady Panthers game point. A mishit on a return of serve put the ball in perfect position for Watson to deliver the game's final blow, forcefully spiking home the final shot to give Ayer-Shirley the win in a truly unforgettable contest.

"Shanna DeBalsi was outstanding in every facet of the game today and kept us in the match, especially in that fourth game," said Ferreira. "Clara came up big in the last two games. Anna played a solid game at the net and our setting today was solid. We got a lot of great efforts today and it was a team effort."

LaPierre was also pleased with what she witnessed in the match.

"Leanne had an amazing game at the net with kills, blocks and everything else," said LaPierre. "Rose and Riley were fantastic with their sets, Alexa Busser was all over the place, Shannon was great and Ludo did some nice things. I mean, I am not happy we lost, but I can't be any prouder of what the kids did out there today."