Pelham wins 6A State Championship in 5-set classic

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

BIRMINGHAM – After a combined six championship points between the Pelham Panthers and Jasper Vikings, the Panthers finally capitalized on the seventh chance in a fifth-set tiebreaker to win the 2017 6A State Championship 3-2 (25-20, 26-24, 22-25, 25-27, 17-15) at Bill Harris Arena in downtown Birmingham on Thursday, Nov. 2.

Pelham played from ahead much of the match, especially early, leading 8-0 in the first set, 6-2 in the second set, 3-1 in the third set and 10-3 in the fourth set; but in the fifth and final set, the Panthers found their backs against the wall down 4-0 in the early going.

The Panthers battled back, however, to a 13-13 tie before eventually facing a championship point down 14-13. Not only did Pelham fend off a heartbreaking defeat, they ended up winning four of the next five points to win the tiebreaker 17-15 and the state championship.

“I honestly don’t know what to say,” Pelham head coach Perry Robinson said after the incredible match. “I’m just proud of how this team stuck together this year.”

While the Panthers won the state championship in five sets, it could have come a lot sooner after winning the first two sets in thrilling fashion to take a quick 2-0 advantage, which put them one set away from the title.

Pelham started on a strong run in the first set, but Jasper responded eventually taking a 15-10 lead. The Panthers answered right back with a 7-1 run to storm in front 17-16. Jasper tied the score again at 17-17, but Pelham finished the set off with an 8-3 run to win 25-20.

The second set was no different, but ended a lot more dramatically. Tied at 19-19, Jasper went on a 5-2 run to hold a set point at 24-21. Pelham, facing adversity, staved off three set points by the Vikings and ended the set with five straight points to steal the win away at 26-24 and a 2-0 advantage in the match.

In the third set it was the other way around as Pelham held a 20-17 lead late, but Jasper rallied back to end the set on an 8-2 run and pick up a 25-22 win, which trimmed the Panthers’ lead to 2-1 in the match.

“They just did a great job of being aggressive down 2-0,” Robinson said. “They came out with that nothing to lose attitude and had us playing on our heels at that point.”

Pelham was still just one set away from the state championship, and they played like it in the fourth set. The Panthers came out with a purpose and it led to an early 10-3 lead. Pelham held that seven-point lead all the way up to  20-13, as the Panthers were just five points away from the title.

Facing its season ending in heartbreak, Jasper fought with everything it had and battled back to cut the lead to 22-21. Pelham turned back up the pressure shortly after with a 3-0 run, to give them three straight championship points with a 24-21 lead.

Just like the Panthers had done the set before, Jasper was able to ward off all three championship points as the crowd waited breathlessly between each point and then erupted. The Vikings then prevented a fourth championship point at 25-24, before ending the set on a 3-0 run to win 27-25 and send the title match to a fifth-set tiebreaker.

“We were just playing safe and scared to make mistakes,” Georgia Stonicher said. “Then we just kicked it back on in the fifth set.”

Pelham came out comfortable in the tiebreaker set and despite falling behind on several occasions, kept their cool to go on to win the state championship in thrilling fashion.

“We played two five-set matches in the south supers on the last day,” Robinson said. “We felt fine. We talk about whatever it takes, we’ll play as long as they let us keep playing.”

Emorie Long was named as the tournament MVP after leading Pelham all season long as one of six seniors. She was the only member of this year’s squad to be on the 2014 team that lost to John Carroll in the state championship.

“That definitely lived up to the expectation,” Long said after pulling out the win this go around. “It’s honestly the greatest experience I have ever had. Every single person on the team wanted it and gave their all for us. Not just this entire season, but my entire high school career has led to this point.”

Stonicher and Sarah Guthrie were also both named to the All-Tournament team for their gutsy performances in not only the state championship match, but the Elite 8 and Final 4 matches against Brewer and Daphne as well.

Last year, with a lot of the same members on the team, the Panthers failed to make it to the postseason, but this year, coach Robinson said there was a different emphasis placed on expectations and then proceeded to point to his seniors sitting around him before saying, “Right here, right here. This is the reason this year was different. We had six seniors that weren’t quite satisfied after last year.”

Those six seniors include Long, Kaytlyn Maddox, Hannah Pritchett, Grace Nolen, Jamila Wilson and Gracyn LeSueur.

Three of those seniors showed out in the state championship with a combined 39 kills between Maddox (11), Wilson (11) and Long (17). A total of five Pelham players ended the match with at least 10 assists as Guthrie and Erin Long added 13 and 10, respectively.

Stonicher led the way with 56 assists in the match, which accounted for all but two assists for the entire team. She also had 10 digs, while Nolen led the team in that category with 19. Guthrie added 16 digs to finish second on the team. The Panthers also combined for nine aces—three from Guthrie and two apiece from Pritchett, Ashley Anderson and Nolen.

The state championship capped off a 41-9 2017 season for the new 6A title holders.

Photos available at www.shelbycountyphotos.com