Pelham sweeps Hillcrest, falls short of states in five-set thriller with No. 2 Spanish Fort

Published 1:41 pm Thursday, October 26, 2023

By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

MONTGOMERY – The Pelham Panthers rode the wave of momentum that carried them to an area championship all the way to the second round of the South Super Regional tournament in a phenomenal showing.

The Panthers took a dominant 3-0 win against the Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa Patriots to open the day, and they took the fight into the late hours of the night in a five-set classic with No. 2 Spanish Fort, but they lost 3-2 in Montgomery on Wednesday, Oct. 25 to end their season.

Pelham opened the day with a straight set sweep over Hillcrest. The Panthers opened the match on an 8-3 run to seize control of the first set, and that set the tone for the rest of the match.

The Panthers extended their lead to double digits and ended up closing the set with a 25-13 win to go up 1-0 in the match.

The second set opened in a tight battle with the teams tied at 4. Pelham then won five straight points to go up 9-4, and the Panthers commanded the set from there.

Once Pelham pulled away, it dominated the closing stretch and won seven of the last eight points to win the second set, 25-11.

The Panthers then started strong again in the third set with a 9-2 run, and they used that to win the set, 25-12, and the match, 3-0.

With the win, Pelham advanced to play the second ranked team in Class 6A, Spanish Fort, in the second round.

The Toros controlled the early stretch of the first set and went up 10-8, but the Panthers roared ahead from there. Pelham won 10 of the next 12 points to swing the momentum in its favor and go ahead 18-12.

Spanish Fort flipped the set back in its favor by winning the next four points, and then it went on another three-point run to tie the set at 21. The Toros then closed strong and won the set, 25-22, by winning four of the final five points.

In the second set, Spanish Fort picked up right where it left off by winning the first four points. Later in the set, Pelham took a 15-12 lead thanks to a pair of aces by Londyn Wynn and was in control despite the close score-line.

The Toros battled back to tie the set at 16, which kicked off a frenzied back-and-forth stretch. Then, with Spanish Fort up 22-20, the Toros committed a service error to give the Panthers the serve.

That opened the door just enough for Pelham to bust it down with five straight points to end the set, and the Panthers took the set, 25-20, to even the match on a Wynn ace.

That tight battle carried on into the first half of the fourth set. The Panthers and Toros were tied at 12, but Pelham appeared to be in control of the momentum despite the close scoreline.

However, Spanish Fort won three straight points to take the lead and force a timeout, and the Toros offense powered them to a 10-4 run to close the third set and earn a 25-17 win.

Pelham responded in a big way with a hot stretch of its own to open the fourth set as it refused to go down without a fight. Needing a set win to extend their season, the Panthers kicked off the set with an 8-3 run to take hold of the set.

The Toros battled back, but Kamryn McMinn earned crucial kills to keep them at bay. However, Spanish Fort then took a 23-22 lead and threatened to take the match. With Pelham’s back against the wall, McMinn made an emphatic answer and took a pair of kills to force extra points.

The match was far from over, though, because the action ramped up for a wild series of extra points.

After the Panthers and Toros remained tied after the first two rounds of extra points, Spanish Fort set up match point in both the third and fourth rounds. Pelham’s serve receive held firm each time and forced a fifth round.

Then, Aubrie Smith took a clutch kill in the fifth round to go up 29-28 and put the pressure on Spanish Fort. The Toros tied and forced a sixth round, but that was as far as they got.

With the match tied at 29, the Panthers kept fighting and forced a lift and a double-hit to win the fourth set in exhilarating fashion.

As Pelham fans erupted in celebration and breathed a sigh of relief after their 31-29 fourth set win to stay alive, the focus shifted to a winner-take-all fifth set to decide whether Pelham or Spanish Fort would advance to the state tournament.

After riding a wave of momentum to get to the fifth set of the second round, Pelham didn’t have enough to keep up in the final frame. Spanish Fort raced ahead to a 5-0 lead in the fifth set, and they kept attacking and controlling the serve to go up 12-5.

Just like it did throughout the match, Pelham briefly fought back from there, but it was too little, too late as the Toros won the fifth set, 15-7 to take the match and advance to the state tournament.

Despite the loss, Pelham completed a strong season where it went 26-14. The Panthers remained in the top 10 for most of the season and claimed the area championship ahead of their run to the round of 16.