GLENS FALLS - All season the Johnstown volleyball team has struggled with slow starts but finished strong to get the win.
Saturday was no exception.
The Lady Bills dropped their first two games against Owego in pool play at the New York State Public High School Class B volleyball championships.
Johnstown's Brianne O'Rourke (14) backs up the play as Jerica Holland (4) drives the ball around the blocking attempt by John Glenn's Leeann Emmi (6) and Alexis Groark (7) during pool play at the New York State Public High School Athletic Association championship tournament Saturday at the Glens Falls Civic Center. (The Leader-Herald/James A. Ellis)
However, the Lady Bills rallied to overpower Section V champion Honeoye Falls-Lima, then upset two-time defending Class B state champion John Glenn High School, forcing a three-way tie for first place in the Class B pool.
With Owego, Johnstown and John Glenn all posting 4-2 records, the tournament committee went to scoring differential to determine the top seed for today's championship match.
The Lady Bills topped their opponents by a combined 31 points, enough to advance them to the New York State Class B championship match for the first time in school history today at noon at the Glens Falls Civic Center.
"It is absolutely incredible," Johnstown coach Heather McGuire said. "We just weren't on our game this morning [against Owego]. We have been here three times now and all I have ever asked the girls to do is play their game. I knew coming into this tournament that they could make it to the finals. I didn't make any secret of it to them either. I told them you can make it to the finals."
John Glenn and Owego were forced into a one-game playoff to determine Johnstown's opponent and Owego came away with a 25-16 victory over the Spiders to earn the championship match berth.
Johnstown opened pool play against Section IV champion Owego and with a service run by Alyssa Nellis, jumped out to an early 5-1 lead.
The Lady Bills were unable to maintain the advantage as the Indians earned quick side outs to break Johnstown's rhythm and post a 25-19 opening-game victory.
Owego continued its solid play into the second game but allowed the Lady Bills to climb back into contention. With their backs against the wall, the Lady Bills battled back from a 23-17 deficit to pull within one point, 23-22. After an exchange of points putting the score at 24-23, the Indians' Kim Lavender hit a clean kill for a 25-23 victory and a 2-0 lead in the Class B pool.
The momentum Johnstown built in the second game carried over to the match with Honeoye Falls-Lima.
The Lady Bills wasted little time establishing control.
Nellis opened with a seven-point service run that included strong kills from Hannah Breda and Annie Stock. Morgan Catania, Stock and Brianne O'Rourke strung together consecutive service runs to build the Lady Bills lead to 16-5 en route to a dominating 25-9 victory, the first for Johnstown in three years at the championship tournament.
Johnstown continued to build momentum for their third match, a showdown with John Glenn, by handily defeating the Cougars 25-15.
"Losing the first two games took a little bit of the wind out of our sails," McGuire said. "On their own, the girls knew what to do and they rallied. They went in the locker room and talked it out. All the credit goes to them. They wanted this and they showed it."
The Lady Bills stunned the defending champions with a game-opening service run by Catania that was backed up by diving digs and double-team blocks at the net for a 5-1 lead.
After a quick timeout, John Glenn worked its way back into contention, tying the game at 10 but could not pull away from the Lady Bills.
Catania again strung together a strong service run that Stock and O'Rourke supported with strong kills to put Johnstown back in front 18-15.
The Spiders fought back to tie the game at 20 before Kaitlyn Duesler stepped to the service line and ran off four points to put Johnstown on the brink of victory 24-20 before John Glenn got a side out.
Stephanie Viteritti served up an ace to close the gap to 24-22 before her next service sailed long to give Johnstown a 25-22 victory.
The inspired Lady Bills rolled out to a 14-2 lead over the Spiders in the second game with service runs from Catania and Stock as well as strong kills from O'Rourke and Stock.
John Glenn cut the lead to 22-15 before Stock hit a cross-court kill to break their run and pull the Lady Bills to within two points of victory 23-15.
After the Spiders trimmed the lead to 23-17, Duesler placed the ball on the floor for a side out and a 24-17 advantage.
Jerica Holland served up the ball that was dug up by the Spiders and played forward to outside hitter Alexis Groark. Hannah Breda timed her jump perfectly to block Groark's attempt, knocking the ball back over the net and on the floor for a 25-17 win.
"That was surreal," McGuire said of the Lady Bills win over perennial powerhouse. "John Glenn has been been a juggernaut of a team. Two years ago there was no one in the stadium that could touch them and last year their were still awesome. So I am so proud that the girls did not let their reputation scare them. The just went out there and played. You can't be afraid. The girls had nothing to lose and they played like it."
The victory also tied Johnstown and John Glenn for the lead in pool play with four wins and two losses each. Both teams looked on intently as Owego and Honeoye Falls-Lima took the court for their match. A split would put the Lady Bills and Lady Knights in the championship game,while a sweep by Owego would set up a three-way tie for first place.
Owego downed the Cougars 25-18 and 25-16 to produce a three-way tie for the top-seed in the championship match.
With Owego beating Johnstown, John Glenn beating Owego and Johnstown topping John Glenn, the head-to-head record was nullified sending the decision to be made by point differentials on the day to determine which team received the top seed and what teams would play a one-game playoff for the second championship berth.
Johnstown's big wins over Honeoye Falls-Lima proved to be the deciding factor that lifted the Lady Bills into the championship match.
"25-9 was what gave us the buffer," McGuire said. "All season long we have been comeback kids and winning big games by coming from behind. It was just too little too late in the second game against Owego [25-23 los]. If we could have just eked out a couple more points this whole experience would have been a little easier on me."
The Spiders appeared shaken by the loss to Johnstown and fell to Owego 25-16 in the playoff.
The Lady Bills will look to avenge their first match loss to Owego today, only this time the match will be the traditional best-of-five game format.
"All season long its been best of five then its pool play here," McGuire said. "It can be overwhelming for the girls. Going 2-2 felt good but going 4-2 was great."
Stock led Johnstown with 24 kills, 25 digs and five aces on the day. Breda finished with nine blocks, 10 kills and three digs, while O'Rourke had 13 kills, 10 blocks and seven digs and Nellis contributed seven blocks, two kills and 25 digs. Holland added 32 assists, 10 digs, four kills and two blocks, while Catania finished with 20 assists and eight digs and Madison Smrtic contributed 24 digs to the Lady Bills' success.