Panthers headed to state volleyball championship match
BIRMINGHAM — Wild doesn’t even begin to describe it.
The Pelham Panthers punched their ticket to the AHSAA Class 6A volleyball state championship match with a 3-2 win over Arab High that had a mix of excitement, fear and fury.
The Panthers got to the semifinal by sweeping the Muscle Shoals Trojans, and set their sights on the Knights.
Pelham took a 25-16 win in the opening set, and opened up a 12-6 lead in set two. A 5-1 run for Arab brought the score to 13-11, and the Knights took the lead at 14-13.
Pelham battled back, nabbing a 17-16 lead and taking control of the momentum of the contest with an Erin Hines kill at 19-17. A 4-2 run, due in part to the service game of Hayley Brisendine, extended the Panther lead to 23-19. It was all Pelham needed, as the Panthers took a 2-0 match advantage with a 25-22 set win.
Facing elimination, the Knights took a 6-5 lead to open the third set. Pelham closed the gap, eventually overtaking with a 9-8 lead.
The Knights battled back, taking a 13-12 lead, but the Panthers tied the set at 14-14.
Then, things got a little interesting.
The Knights grabbed ahold of the momentum, going on a 9-0 run to take a commanding 23-14 lead over the Panthers. Pelham tried to mount a comeback, but fell short as the Knights took a 25-18 set win to fend off elimination.
The Knights’ offense came alive in the fourth set, opening up with a 5-2 lead to kick things off. The Panthers struggled to find an answer, despite two impressive kills to stay alive by Hines and Josie Harwood, Pelham trailed the entire set and fell 25-19.
With the Knights back in the contest, the Panthers’ offense continued to struggle in the final set. Arab opened up a 6-1 lead, and just as it appeared the Panthers’ title hopes were slowly slipping out of reach, Pelham roared to life.
The Panthers stopped the Knights’ rush at 6-2, and turned the ball over to Emily Jackson to serve. With a combination of Jackson’s service game and working the ball away from the Arab defense, the Panthers crawled back into the contest with a 6-0 run, including a 4-0 run to tie the set.
Already teeming with excitement, the Pelham crowd erupted when the Panthers took the lead on the ensuing serve at 7-6, eventually opening up a 9-8 lead. With the momentum fully in their possession, Pelham closed out the set and the match with a 6-2 run, clinching a 15-10 win and a berth in the championship match.
“That is one of the most crazy matches I have ever been involved with,” Pelham head coach Perry Robinson said. “The first two sets, we were a little better in serve-and-pass than they were, and when they figured that out, it became a battle. That was one heck of a ball team.”
Robinson was quick to praise his team and the fans.
“I’m so proud of them, all of them,” he said. “The kids on the court, the kids off the court, everybody was into that last (set). Emily kind of got them out of their rhythm…and got Arab a little out of kilter…and we just took advantage of it. That’s what we’ve done all year.”
With the win, the Panthers secured a state title match against area rival John Carroll, who the Panthers knocked off for the Area 8 title.
Robinson said he felt his team knew what to expect, and needed to be ready for a battle.
“They already know them, it about who’s going to come here and play tomorrow,” he said. “John Carroll is a great team, this will be the sixth time we’ve played them. It’s going to be an interesting atmosphere to say the least. I’m excited to play them, because they’re a good team, and I hope we can come back and do what we’ve been doing all year. “
The Panthers will square off with the Cavaliers at 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 31, again at the Birmingham Crossplex.