By Phil Stacey Sports editor
The Salem News
---- — BEVERLY — Veronica Schaefer knows how the Beverly High volleyball team is feeling — and, perhaps more importantly, where they’re headed in the future.
North Andover High, the team that Schaefer coaches, was once in a situation similar to that of the Panthers: a young, still growing program whose best years are ahead of them.
So Schaefer, whose team bested the hosts, 3-0, in the Division 2 North quarterfinals last night, was more than happy to share a bit of wisdom with Beverly’s head coach, Pam Padovani, after the Knights prevailed 25-10, 25-9, 25-19.
“I told Pam I remember when she started, and that when I started it took me six years just to make it into the state tournament. We had some 0-20 seasons,” said Schaefer, who has been at the Knights’ helm for all 11 years of the program’s history. “I told Pam that her team should keep their heads up and be proud. They’re on the right path.”
Padovani, whose third-seeded Panthers saw their season end at 14-3 overall, clearly took those words to heart.
“She’s an inspiration to me,” Padovani said of Schaefer. “She said it’s taken them a long time to get to this point, and it’s only the second time they’ve ever gone this far (to the North semifinals).
“I watched them play and knew that they were a tough, tough team. We had a lot to prepare for. By the third game, I thought we adjusted and were playing much better ... but overall, it’s a learning process.”
Beverly’s three senior starters — outside hitter Mariah Dodd, middle hitter Katie Ball and setter Karlie Marrs — all did what they could to keep the home team in the match. They helped get the Panthers off to a fast 5-0 start in the second game, then were instrumental as the team battled back in Game 3, cutting North Andover’s lead to 12-11, then 23-19 before eventually falling.
Junior middle hitter Kristen Abbondanza, as well as junior opposites Haley Finik and Bridget Keaton, also had strong games for the Panthers, while sophomore middle hitter Alex Kelleher came off the bench to provide a much needed spark.
But Beverly was hurt by inconsistent play and an inability to slow North Andover’s runs. For instance, after taking that early lead in Game 2, the Panthers couldn’t stop setter Andrea King, who served 15 straight points for the Knights, enabling her team to pull away to a commanding lead of two games to none.
It was evident that North Andover had been helped by playing its regular season matches in the highly competitive Merrimack Valley League, and it showed last night.
“We don’t face teams like that during the regular season,” Padovani said. “The Northeastern Conference is getting stronger, but it takes a while to get to that level.
“I don’t feel we brought our ‘A’ game tonight. We weren’t talking as much, and there were some breakdowns defensively.”
North Andover (17-5), the No. 7 seed, took control early on and, with the exception of the early stages of the second game, never really lost momentum. Strong on-court communication, timely passing and great play around the net enabled the visitors to play with confidence and pile up points quickly.
Senior captain Micaela Donatio, a 6-foot-1 force at middle hitter, made life difficult for Beverly’s net players with a number of kills, especially in the first game. Outside hitter Courtney Green and libero Kaylee Lambrinos were others who made big plays at big times during the contest.
The key for Beverly to grow and improve, Padovani said, is building a feeder program. With 28 players in the program (and 25 more freshmen turned away this fall), the Panthers’ coach said the interest is there; now, finding a way to foster that in the immediate future is key.
“It’s a sport that’s growing here,” Padovani said, “and to get a feeder program going, so that the girls come into the high school already knowing the game, will only benefit us.”