Published November 14, 2018
By DAN PAWLOWSKI
TEWKSBURY — For all the countless hours of preparation, practice, X’s and O’s, the 2018 Lynnfield volleyball team is always at their best when they can simply have fun playing the game they love.
After seven straight Div. 3 North championships from 2010-2016, the Pioneers dominated the North bracket in just their second year of Div. 2 play. In fact, Lynnfield didn’t lose a set in their four sectional games, building off their 3-0 wins over Hamilton-Wenham and Tewksbury with a 3-0 win over Melrose in the semifinals on Thursday and a 3-0 win over Burlington in the Finals on Saturday.
“This was the team that I coached at the JV level two years ago that went 20-0 and I knew that they were goofy, fun and so close-knit that nothing really tore them apart,” said first-year varsity head coach Brent Ashley. “It was the first team that I realized if I was a cheerleader for them, they can do some really incredible things.”
Yes, coach Ashley is selling himself short. His gameplan, rotations, scouting and in-game adjustments constantly put his team in position to succeed. But he means it when he says his team’s volleyball IQ was so good that he often found himself throwing aside his clipboard (often times in celebration) and joining the rest of the well-traveled Lynnfield fanbase.
Since their first really big win of the season over Reading way back on Sept. 13, coach Ashley has seen how successful the team could be if they made an effort to turn off their minds and just play.
That will be the goal again as they compete at states. The state semifinals were played after press time on Tuesday at Hudson High School against the Central winners, Groton-Dunstable.
DeGeorge takes over against Melrose
On Thursday night at Stoneham High, the Pioneers lined up across last year’s Div. 2 North Champion, Melrose.
Captain Sam DeGeorge, the lone senior on Lynnfield, carried the Pioneers in this one, controlling the middle of the net to tally nine blocks and seven kills.
Lynnfield won the first set 25-22. After Lynnfield jumped out to a 11-6 lead, Melrose hung tough and battled back eventually tying it at 16. A powerful spike from captain Melissa Morelli gave Lynnfield back the lead. The most important point of the set came with the score tied 19-19. Sofia Ciriello, who led the team with 12 digs, had her most impressive one of the game on a diving effort that Morelli kept alive with a wild punch. Lynnfield would win the point at the net and never relinquish control.
In the second set, Morelli got three of her 14 kills in the middle part of the set to make sure Melrose couldn’t get any momentum going as Lynnfield went on to win 25-21.
“The key is just staying consistent,” said Ashley. “They (Melrose) had a couple of great hitters and play great defense. We tried to kill every rally. I don’t think they had more than four or five serves to us at a time so just stopping rallies and not allowing them to get any momentum was important.”
Melrose fought back in the third and took an 11-10 lead before the Pioneer student section helped push Lynnfield to close out the victory. DeGeorge sent those Pioneer superfans into another stratosphere with back-to-back loud blocks to seal the victory.
“The fact we had our fans here was fantastic,” said Ashley. “When we have our fans, we just have a little extra in our gut.”
Morelli added 16 assists to her 14 kills. Sophia Wilkinson had 12 assists, Ashley Pagliuca had 10 digs and Sam Lebruska added seven kills.
The postgame celebration was a mix of pure joy and anticipation. The Pioneers were going to celebrate this accomplishment, but they never planned for it to be their last one.
“The girls are so ecstatic,” said Ashley. “But they’re not done.”
Hang on over talented Burlington team
The Pioneers knew Burlington would give them a fight on Saturday at Tewksbury Memorial High School. The Red Devils were just coming off an upset over powerhouse Arlington Catholic in the semifinals.
Following a team-high 12 kills from Morelli who once again got big points when Lynnfield needed them most, the Pioneers won 3-0 again, though this time it was much more anxious.
Lynnfield jumped out to a big lead in the first set and forced a Burlington timeout with the score 11-5.
Ashley Pagliuca ( 16 digs) had an incredible dig to keep a rally alive that Lynnfield would win for a 12-5 lead and two points later had another impressive defensive play which led to a kill from Lebruska (seven kills). Burlington adjusted and mounted a furious comeback, tallying eight straight points to force a rare timeout from Ashley and the Pioneers with the score 17-16, Red Devils.
Morelli picked up the first point out of the timeout.
It was a back-and-forth ending to the set. Lynnfield went up 24-22 but Burlington got the next three and threatened to close it with a 25-24 lead. After a Devil mishit, Lebruska ended the set at the line with an ace and a great serve that Burlington couldn’t end up returning for a massive 27-25 set one win.
Burlington bounced back in the second and led most of the way, until the Pioneers scrapped their way back into it with great defense and smart shots. Morelli had six kills in the second set. Lynnfield took their first lead on an ace from Ciriello to make it 21-20 and force a Burlington timeout.
Ciriello got another ace out of the timeout and Morelli fittingly ended it for a 25-20 set two win.
Burlington stormed back late in the third and got four straight points to tie it up at 24-24. Morelli and Kayla Mortellite were both in the mix for a huge block to regain the lead and a Burlington error gave Lynnfield the win and an epic Div. 2 North banner to bring back to LHS.
“Morelli was great today,” said Ashley. “As a hitter she’s incredible and as a setter she runs our offense. I can give Melissa two hand signals and she knows exactly what to do. It’s a benefit to us to have a player that smart because she doesn’t have to read everything, she can rely on the coaches and just run it. She’s an incredible player.”
Like any team on a stage this big, the Pioneers had jitters and some moments where they looked unsure, but there is always a point in each game where something clicks as a group and the fans know it’s over. The Pioneers now know exactly when and how to push that button.
All they have to do is be themselves.
“At the end of the day, if we relax and have fun, we’re an incredible team,” said Ashley.
Whether D3 or D2, heck, give them a shot at D1; so long as the Pioneers have fun, they will rule the North.