By Mike Grenier
---- — LAWRENCE – There’s always an extraordinary sense of accomplishment when a team reaches unprecedented heights in any sport.
However, what makes the Bishop Fenwick volleyball team’s story so compelling is that the Crusaders still feel like they’re galloping towards the finish line. And they won’t be content until they cross it.
In what was a historic day for the Peabody parochial school’s volleyball program, the Crusaders polished off an outstanding Melrose team, 3-0 (27-25, 25-12, 25-18) to capture their first-ever Division 2 North championship before a lively crowd Saturday.
Bishop Fenwick improved to 22-2, and to do it against a Melrose team that had stopped the Crusaders in the North final in both 2010 and 2011 made it even sweeter. Yet the celebration was somewhat muted.
“It’s a big step for us,” said Jen Crovo, who piled up 27 digs to go with seven kills in a stellar performance for Bishop Fenwick. “It’s nice for tonight, but tomorrow it doesn’t mean anything.”
Crovo isn’t jaded, just determined. So are her teammates.
As a whole, Bishop Fenwick might be coming off its best game of the season when it heads into the state semifinals Wednesday against Notre Dame Academy at Tewksbury High (7 p.m.).
“We’re not stopping until we finish (the job),” said Kate Lipka, who was the bane of Melrose’s existence with 22 kills. “The way we look at it, we have two more games to go (to win the state title).”
Bishop Fenwick displayed its calmness in the clutch and its experience when it was on the verge of losing Game 1, rallying from a 24-22 deficit to win 27-25. After that the Crusaders simply owned the match, blowing out to a 19-9 lead en route to a 25-12 runaway in Game 2. Nor would they let Melrose hang around in Game 3, going on a 7-1 run early on (for an 8-5 lead) and cruised from there.
In addition to Lipka and Crovo, the statistical leaders included Gianna Pizzano (10 kills) and Tessa McLaughlin (41 assists). But all those numbers were in the context of a brilliant team performance. The Crusaders were more athletic and more consistent than Melrose from point to point, and when they began to smell victory, they went for the jugular.
“I thought we had one of our best attacking games of the season,” said Melrose (21-3) coach Scott Celli, whose team won its first three state tourney matches by a combined score of 9-0. “We just made too many mistakes.
“The bottom line is that Bishop Fenwick played really well and made fewer mistakes. They were the better team today and deserved to win.”
The first game unquestionably set the tone for both teams. Melrose had three chances to close it out – at 24-22, 24-23 and 25-24 – but Bishop Fenwick came up with big blocks and big hits and turned the tide right then and there. The Crusaders would never let Melrose get that close again.
“It was essential,” Bishop Fenwick coach Adam DeBaggis said of establishing superiority early on. “Losing (Game 1) makes it a different game. More than any other sport, volleyball is all about attitude and being in the right frame of mind. Winning that first game (and beating Melrose in the regular season), we knew we could beat them.
“Something we always do is keep the ball alive ... and we have a gutsy team,” added DeBaggis. “Melrose is a younger team. This is how we were two years ago – the younger team – when we played them (for the North title). When we get momentum we keep it, and that’s just huge in volleyball. This is the best thing I’ve ever been a part of.”
Lipka didn’t think that Melrose collapsed or lost its heart after it dropped the first game. She said it was more a case of Bishop Fenwick getting into an even better groove.
“They’ve played us well every single time we play them. I just think we came to play tonight,” said Lipka. “We played amazing volleyball. Every girl did exactly what their job is.”
McLaughlin once had 50 assists in a maximum five-game match, so to get 41 in just three games illustrates just how in sync the Crusaders were. “I know I can trust all of our hitters,” said McLaughlin.
That trust in each other will be there in Thursday’s state semifinal. The Crusaders have gotten this far because they have the mental acumen to go with the physical skills.
“I can’t put into words the leadership we have on this team,” said DeBaggis. “These kids are as mature as any adults I know. I’m still in disbelief at what just happened. I won’t wipe this smile off my face until I have to. (Today, when they resume practice), I have to.”