CHESHIRE — No matter the game or stakes, when Cheshire and Southington share the stage, emotions run high.
On Saturday night, the stakes were about as high as they can get. And in front of a raucous Cheshire gymnasium, emotions carried the Southington volleyball team only so far against the CIAC Class LL’s No. 1 seed in the quarterfinals.
Cheshire dropped the first game, but won the next three to stay undefeated and move into the semifinals.
The 24-0 Rams, chasing their fifth state championship under Cheshire head coach Sue Bavone, will face No. 12 Fairfield-Ludlowe in Wednesday’s Class LL semifinals at a neutral site to be announced. Ludlowe upset No. 4 Conard in five sets Saturday.
The other Class LL semifinal pits No. 2 seed Greenwich vs. No. 3 Darien. Both won Saturday 3-0.
Southington, seeded No. 8, saw its season end at 18-6.
With half the Cheshire gym in home red and the other in SHS blue — split in half by the net — the Lady Knights put up a battle from the opening point. And after Cheshire scored the first five points of Game 4 and stretched its advantage to 15-7, the Lady Knights rallied to take a 20-17 lead.
Cheshire rallied to tie 20-20 and, behind SCC Player of the Year Avery Mola, who led the Rams with 15 kills, was able to close out the match 25-22.
Southington won the opener 25-15 before losing the next two games by the same 25-19 score.
“We really just made some stupid mistakes (in Game 1); we were a little too anxious,” Bavone said. “I figured there would be some nerves — a big crowd, big atmosphere.
“I told them (after Game 1), ‘If we take away our unforced errors, we’ll be OK.’”
In the deciding game, a pair of hitting errors by the Lady Knights gave Cheshire the lead for good, 22-20. Southington got within a point, 22-21, but a Mola kill off a pair of SHS blockers was followed by a dink by Mola that put Cheshire up 24-22.
Cheshire then won the match when Southington hit the net attempting to block the Rams’ hitters.
“At 15-7, they could have packed it in right there,” Southington head coach Rich Heitz said. “But we came back and took the lead, but then made some youthful errors when it got close there.
“You don’t like to make excuses, but we have a lot of young kids out there tonight and they learned a lot,” Heitz added. “In a game like this, against a team like that, our ball control wasn’t as strong as it needed to be throughout the night.
“They’ll learn from this. (The season) has been a great experience,” continued Heitz.
After losing the opener, Cheshire never trailed over the next two games. A big reason was the play of Mola, who added a pair of aces and four digs to her overall stat line.
“It was a little shaky at first,” Mola said. “Honestly, we were little intimidated by them. We knew they had some really big (girls) and hitters. And I’m not going to lie, we struggled with out serve return. Their serves were a little rough on us.
“But, honestly, it was just pulling through. Once they started hitting at us, and we started get on our game, playing our game, I’d knew we’d be fine.”
Whenever Cheshire needed a lift, Mola was there to provide one.
“That’s what she does,” Bavone said. “She has great court sense. She usually comes up with the big (point) when you need it.”
As for playing from behind for the first time in the playoffs and allowing Southington to come back in Game 4?
“It was just a bunch of little scramble plays, and we weren’t making smart decisions at the net. I thought our brains left us for a while there (in Game 4). We just had to refocus on what we were trying to do,’” Bavone said.
“We can play a lot better,” the Cheshire coach added. “(A state title) is a goal every year. It’s just so hard to do in LL. LL is a gauntlet; there are a lot of great teams in LL. For the LL teams, it’s definitely ‘survive and advance.’”
In Game 2, Mola started to assert herself. She was instrumental in the Rams taking a 12-6 lead, and her three straight kills and strong serving allowed Cheshire to open up a 22-16 advantage.
In what would be a pivotal Game 3, the Rams took an early 12-7 advantage behind Mola, who had kill, service point and ace to put Cheshire in control.
Southington, however, came back behind freshman Alyssa Ferreira (9 kills, 20 digs). Her sophomore sister Gabby led the Lady Knights with 11 kills.
Junior Haley Weiner had a team-high 33 assists, while Makenzie Marek had 19 digs.
Jenna Stickney had eight kills for the Rams. Grace Downing led Cheshire with 16 assists and Tori Santi had a team-high 17 digs.
With the momentum shifting toward Cheshire after it dropped the opener, Heitz tried the stem the tide several times. He called timeouts twice in both Game 2 and Game 3 with the Lady Knights trailing.
And he called another pair of timeouts after the Rams raced out to 5-0 and 15-7 leads in Game 4.
“You feel like things are starting to go off the rails little. You don’t want things to get out of hand,” Heitz said.
The Rams didn’t take their first lead until three points into the second game. But once they got ahead, they stayed ahead.
In Game 2, Cheshire took a 12-6 lead behind Mola, forcing Southington to call a timeout. The Lady Knights responded by scoring five of the next seven points to make Bavone use a timeout of her own at 14-11.
Cheshire, however, opened up a 20-15 lead to force another SHS timeout.
Mola then provided three powerful points at the net to extend the Cheshire lead to 23-19.
Game 2 ended with Mola teaming up with Tess Givens to stuff a SHS shot at the net.
The match couldn’t have started better for the Lady Knights. A 7-2 start forced a Cheshire timeout.
The Lady Knights extended their lead to 15-9 before the Rams climbed within 19-14 on a Mola kill. But that was as close as Cheshire got in the opener, as the Lady Knights went on 6-1 run to close out Game 1.