NEWARK – As Victoria Taylor's final swing of the night found an open spot on the floor, the Delaware Military Academy volleyball team breathed a sigh of relief. A season that had included some tension and uncertainty ended Monday night with the Seahawks united and celebrating their second consecutive state volleyball championship after five tough sets against Ursuline. The scores at the Bob Carpenter Center were 21-25, 28-26, 25-17, 25-27 and 15-12.
Taylor finished with a team-leading 24 kills in her final high school match, but she was hardly alone providing offense for the Seahawks. Jackie Shields contributed eight, and Natalie Lavelle added six. On defense, libero Kirsten Longueria collected 37 digs.
Ursuline freshman Corinne Furey saved one championship point with a spike down the middle, and Delaware Military coach Sydney Cook called her final timeout. Sydney Fulton had a nice dig on the serve when play resumed, forcing Longueria to play the role of setter. Taylor came from the outside left and crossed the court, setting off a frenzied celebration on the court and in the stands, where several hundred DMA students had gathered.
“It just really felt like a rush to my head. I can't believe that my team pulled through and we played like a family with our hearts,” Taylor said.
After going undefeated in 2015, the fourth-seeded Seahawks were sitting at 4-4 this season after losing to St. Mark's on Oct. 11. Cook said some intervention was necessary to right the ship, and DMA went 12-0 afterward.
“We couldn't figure out who our team leader was,” the 22-year-old coach said. “After St. Mark's we just sat down and re-evaluated everything. We did a lot of talking, a lot of mediation-type stuff with people outside of volleyball. It truly worked. They found their niche.”
Taylor said the team was searching for an identity.
“We decided that we weren't really playing our game right now. We just decided to sit back on that ball and maintain our energy and our performance on that court,” she said.
The Raiders, seeded sixth, had taken early leads in the second, third and fourth sets, but DMA took the 7-4 advantage in the fifth, prompting a timeout by Ursuline coach Sue Heiss. Her young team – with just two seniors and six freshmen – responded by scoring five of the next six points to forge an 8-8 tie. UA's Abigail Rzucidlo, one of those freshmen, tied it again at nine by smashing one down the middle, but the Seahawks then picked up the next three points on a kill by Shields and two unforced errors.
Taylor scored the Seahawks' final three points.
“We have been back and up. We have dug ourselves a hole, and we knew how to climb out of it,” Taylor said.
DMA started the night strong, opening with a 5-2 lead in the first, but the first few minutes were no indication of how the evening would proceed. The Raiders ran off seven straight at one point, with Rzucidlo getting a kill and a block, and Nocket delivering an ace. The teams were close until the end, when Sam Davis finished it with a kill.
Ursuline led, 14-9, in the second set and stayed in front until the Seahawks knotted the score at 20 on a pair of Raiders unforced errors. DMA sent it to set point on a Taylor kill, but the Raiders saved three set points to send it to extras. The Raiders then reached set point on a kil by Taylor Wright, but DMA saved and pushed the score to 26-25 on a Lavelle block. Markel staved off set point once more with a kill, but a back-row smash by Taylor and a cross-court shot by Shields ended the second.
Delaware Military turned a 5-1 deficit into a 12-9 lead in the third, but Ursuline battled back to tie on two Wright swings and an ace by Nocket. A six-point run, however, put the set out of reach, and Shields closed it with another cross.
Taylor was on fire in the fourth set, but Ursuline hung around thanks to contributions from several girls. The Seahawks went back ahead, 23-20, and their fans could taste a championship, but UA had other ideas. Facing championship point at 24-22, the Raiders got one back on a service error. Wright tied the score on a push kill and made it set point for UA on a smash. Taylor tied it at 25, but Wright untied it with a block, and the set ended on an errant Seahawks shot, setting up the final frame.
Heiss said she is optimistic about the future for the Raiders, who appeared in the championship match for the first time since 2012. Young players such as Kylie Nocket, Cassidy Markel and Rzucidlo made noticeable strides as the season progressed.
“I am so unbelievably proud,: Heiss said. “I kept on saying we have to improve every game, and I thought by far, this was our best game. I felt we played really as a team. We got the things we couldn't get.
“The kids may be young, but they played old. They played like they have a whole bunch of experience, and we can feed off of that. We will get better, and we'll be right there.”
Wright had 19 kills and Furey 18 in a glimpse of what to expect next season, while Rzucidlo continued her coming-out party in the tournament with nine. Sam Davis was outstanding on defense, picking up 28 digs. Wright had 27 digs, Alexandra Kochie 23 and Cassidy Markel 12. The Raiders finished the season with a record of 14-5, with wins over the second- and third-seeded teams to reach the final.
DMA, which graduates seven seniors, went 16-4.