Pelham advances to Elite Eight for 6th time in last 7 years

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

MONTGOMERY – For the third year in a row and sixth time in the last seven years, the Pelham Panthers are headed back to the AHSAA Volleyball Tournament as one of the final eight teams left in the 6A classification.

The Panthers, who are coming off back-to-back appearances in the Final Four and a state championship two years ago, beat both No. 6 St. Paul’s and Benjamin Russell in straight sets to carry the storied program into the Elite Eight which will take place Oct. 30-31 at the Birmingham CrossPlex.

Despite failing to win the area championship this year and some up and down play over the final few weeks of the season, the Panthers came into the season determined with eight seniors looking to take the team back to prominence atop the 6A classification.

Preaching before the season to never have two bad days in a row, head coach Perry Robinson had to be pleased with the way his team bounced back from a 3-1 loss to Chelsea just three days earlier in the area championship.

With that loss, the Panthers’ path at regionals was more difficult than if they had won, but the team that had one goal coming into the season didn’t care.

With postseason play here, the team flipped a switch and played possibly its best two matches of the season.

Against No. 6 St. Paul’s, Pelham controlled the match throughout and wasn’t pressed too hard until the third set.

With that matchup likely being the most difficult opponent the Panthers would have to take on in the super regionals, they knew a good start would be key and it showed out of the gate.

Having been tested against some of the best teams through one of the most difficult schedules this season, Pelham was ready and controlled the first set, before making plays late to pick up a 25-19 victory.

That just grew the team’s confidence. With several players that had either played in a super regional or at least seen what it was like as a member of the team, Pelham seemed extremely comfortable.

The Panthers knew that being up 1-0, they had a big opportunity going into the second set and they capitalized jumping out to a 9-3 lead and never looking back.

Pelham pulled away throughout and eventually picked up a 25-10 set victory to jump on top 2-0 in the match.

With the Saints now forced to win or go home, they came out with a different attitude and energy in the third set handling the nerves extremely well.

That led to a compelling third set that saw Pelham grab a 20-18 lead late. After the Panthers took a three-point lead at 22-19, St. Paul’s answered back with a 4-1 run to tie the set at 23-23.

But Pelham, having been in several tight matchups against good teams, was able to find clutch play. After being tied again at 24-24, the Panthers were able to win two consecutive points to close out a 26-24 set victory and a 3-0 sweep in the match.

In a rhythm, the Panthers used that added confidence heading into matchup with Benjamin Russell later in the afternoon.

Even with two hours of downtime, nothing could get Pelham off beat as the Panthers came back and looked even better in a matchup that determined whether they advanced to the state tourney or not.

Pelham jumped out to strong leads in the first two sets and it was never close in two 25-10 wins.

Not much changed in the third set, as the Panthers played with a strong lead throughout. Up 23-14 with Tammy Melendez serving, they were able to close out the final two points to complete a perfect day and advance to state.