AYER — In the midst of a raucous Ayer High gymnasium on Monday night, visiting Marian had clawed its way back into the match after dropping the first two games. The Lady Mustangs captured the third game and had forged an 22-18 lead in the fourth game.
At that point, the Lady Panthers summoned up the lessons learned from matches past and re-established the poise that has been its trademark through an unbeaten season. Ayer scored seven of the next eight points to finish off Marian and to punch a ticket to the next round, with another home game against Douglas with a hard fought 3-1 win.
This was a curious match with serving being far less a factor than usual for both sides. In the match only 81 of the 181 points (45 percent) were registered by the team serving. The key elements on Monday night were the gutsy digging both teams did to keep points alive, scrambling play that extended points, and the 69 kills the teams combined to get.
Because of the dearth of service points, the match lacked the big runs that separate teams, providing a close match throughout, something the enthusiastic crowd grasped on to.
“We are mentally tough,” said Ayer coach Vic Wirkkala. “We proved that throughout the season and again tonight. We haven’t played in two weeks and we needed this match. We came out in the first game and served poorly and I told the girls that we needed to start getting our serves into play. I told them to get the ball into play and force Marian to make the plays.”
Ayer finished with 46 service points (eight aces), 42 kills and three blocks, and six players had productive evenings to give the team a balance that was crucial. Anna Peck (eight service points, 13 kills, one block) and Brynnan Farrington (nine service points, 11 kills, two blocks) proved to be a formidable 1-2 punch at the net. Shanna DeBalsi (eight service points, six kills) and Ally Fillebrown (five service points, five kills) both contributed in a variety of ways, while Angel Yang (six service points, four kills) and Katie Ferreira (10 service points, three kills) did most of the setting and contributed in other categories as well.
Mercedes Kalin was a potent force for Marian, finishing with eight service points and 12 kills, but wasn’t on the court for the final 10 points of the fourth game, which hampered the Lady Mustangs’ effort.
Ayer struggled mightily with its serve in the first game, firing seven errant serves, but were able to post a 25-21 win. Peck and Farrington came up big at the net, while Ferreira had five service points, including a pair of aces. The largest lead of the game was six points by Ayer, but Marian fought back to within 23-20, before Peck iced the game with a pair of kills.
Marian established an early lead in game two, but the Lady Panthers took the lead for good at 9-8 on a kill by DeBalsi. The Lady Panthers finished off the game with a 16-7 run, keyed by three service points each from Fillebrown and Yang, and 14 kills.
The Lady Panthers appeared ready to put the match away in game three, twice building five point leads. The first came on an ace by Farrington that made it 11-6, and the second at 14-9 on a kill by Ferreira.
Marian climbed back into the game with a 6-1 run to make it 15-15, keyed by three consecutive kills by Kalin, and three service points from Kelly May, who finished with 12 service points in the match.
The teams went toe-to-toe over the next 14 points, with ties at 16-16, 19-19, 20-20, 21-21 and 22-22. But after Kalin’s kill made it 22-22, May served three consecutive points to put the game on ice, finishing with an ace.
Game four was a thriller as the teams went back-and-forth. A kill by Tess Anketell put Marian on top 12-11, and kills by Anketell and Samantha Fonseca built the lead to three at 14-11.
Ayer closed to within 19-18, but Kalin followed a kill with a pair of service points and the Lady Mustangs led 22-18.
The Lady Panthers picked up a crucial sideout, and two service points by Fillebrown, the second an ace sliced the lead to 22-21.
Marian doubled the lead with a sideout, but Yang picked up a kill before serving the final three points to send the Panthers on to the semi-finals. Fittingly, a Peck kill sealed the deal.
“This was a match that we had to gut out and that is a plus,” said Wirkkala. “I was worried about not having played in awhile and it is nice to get this one under our belt. It’s also great to get another home game.”