Panthers fall to Beacons in back-and-forth battle
BOSTON, Mass. – In a back-and-forth battle, #1 University of Massachusetts Boston downed #4 Plymouth State University, 3-1 (25-20, 21-25, 25-20, 25-17), to advance to the Little East Conference (LEC) Championships for the third straight year.
The Beacons (14-15) will host #2 Keene State in Saturday's final after the Owls blanked Eastern Connecticut, 3-0, in Thursday's other semifinal. Plymouth State (19-11) sees its season come to an end at the hands of the Beacons for the second straight year.
In a rematch of the 2016 championship game, both team's came out timid as they struggled to find their rhythm. The Panthers held a slight 14-13 edge after a kill from freshman Francie Shaffer (Frederick, Colo.), but the Beacons answered with six straight points to take control. UMB errors allowed PSU to pull within three on three separate occasions, but the home team was able to hold on for a 25-20 win.
The second set was much more crisp for PSU. With the score tied at 8-8, a block from Shaffer and junior Jill Tiner (Salem, N.H.), followed by kills from junior Ari Linden (Lena, Ill.) and sophomore Alexis Bowers (Port St. Lucie, Fla.) forced the Beacons into a timeout. A kill cut the deficit to 15-14, but that was as close as UMB would get. The Panther defense held on for some long rallies, forcing UMass Boston into hitting errors, and another Shaffer kill evened the match at a set apiece.
Plymouth State jumped out to a lead in the pivotal third set. Four straight Beacons' errors gave the visitors a 6-1 lead. PSU was still ahead 12-9, when the hosts ran five straight points to pull in front. A kill from senior Claire Sporer (Medford, Ore.) stopped the run and sparked the Panthers. Two more Sporer kills, coupled with a handful of UMB errors put PSU ahead 18-15, but the top-seeded Beacons responded with another five point run to take a 20-18 lead. With the score 22-20, the Beacons ran three straight points to take a 2-1 lead.
"The confidence we gained from taking the second set brought a new energy and helped us get out to a good start in the third," said head coach Chris Kilmer. "We had the lead in the middle and late stages, but got stuck in a couple of rotations that allowed them to come back."
The fourth set belonged to the home team. PSU kept things close through the early stages, but UMB slowly pulled ahead. Leading 10-9, the Beacons scored six of the next eight points to take a 16-11 lead. The Panthers would hang within striking distance, but could never get closer than three points the rest of the way, as the hosts closed out the match.
Sporer finished with a team-high nine kills and added 12 digs. Shaffer added eight kills and three blocks, with Bowers and Linden each chipping in with six kills. Senior Megan Bailey (Canterbury, N.H.) posted 25 assists and 10 digs, with classmates Brenna Peruch (Cave Creek, Ariz.) and Grace Sporer (Medford, Ore.) and adding 20 and 12 digs respectively.
"We came in here and really fought tonight," added Kilmer. "We had a good game plan and I thought we worked hard to execute it. We made some great plays and just missed on a few that could have swung the match in our favor. Obviously, I wish the result had been different, but we played hard and never rolled over. I'm proud of the way we played today."
The loss marks the end of the careers of Bailey, Peruch and the Sporer twins.
Peruch finishes as arguably the best defensive player in program history. Her 564 digs were the seventh most in a season in program history, while her 4.99 digs/set were the third highest all time. She ends her career with a program best 4.55 career digs/set average, and is number two all-time with 1,958 career digs.
Claire Sporer finishes seventh in program history with 834 career kills and 2,633 career attack attempts, as a three year member of the program. Her 2.70 career kills/set average is good enough for ninth all-time.
Bailey wraps up her career with 2,122 assists and a 7.86 career assists/set average. Both marks are the sixth highest in program history.
"The impact that those four have had on our program is pretty difficult to explain," added Kilmer in closing. "All four will be hard to replace – not just because their names are plastered all over our record books, but because of the work ethic, commitment and leadership they brought to a team that relied heavily on some younger players."
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