AYER -- It was quite literally "senior" day at Ayer-Shirley for the girls' volleyball team. The Lady Panthers honored their one senior, captain Emma Shiels, with a gift and a bouquet of flowers at center court prior to the team's match against North Middlesex (6-11).
North Middlesex buckled itself in the driver's seat from the opening serve as it swept the Lady Panthers in straight sets, (25-9, 25-23, 25-20)
"It was Emma day," said a smiling Donna Ferreira. "My girls were executing well between offense and defense. I was pleased with Emma's play. I thought that Danielle Colburn played well with her solid passing. North Middlesex is bigger, stronger and way taller than us. They were running more sophisticated plays. We thought if we played well and they played not well, we might have been able to squeak this one out."
On the other side, North Middlesex head coach Mark Roy commanded his eight seniors to the final win of their high school careers.
"It is bittersweet," Roy said. "They are a great group of girls, and I have had them for four years. They are like my family to me. That is the truth. I am just so glad that we ended with another win for them."
North Middlesex muscled its way out to a commanding 9-0 run in game-one behind the solid serving of its junior outside hitter, Kayla Delaney. Delaney had two service aces in the sequence coupled with some costly errors by the Lady Panthers, helped the Lady Pats' lead gain momentum. A kill from Sheils resulted in a North Middlesex error.
Midway through the match, Ayer-Shirley was able to trim the deficit to 10-5, but strong serving by Sammy Jurgilewicz and company proved to be too much for the Lady Panthers to handle. Errors continued to plague the Lady Panthers thus resulting in a 25-9 victory in favor of North Middlesex.
For the first six points of match number two, the momentum appeared to rest in the hands of the Lady Panthers. Maddie Mitrano started the match with a thunderous spike that dropped in the middle of the floor.
The Lady Panthers took a 5-1 lead behind strong spikes from Shiels and costly North Middlesex errors. However, right around point 23, the momentum started to swing in favor of North Middlesex. The Lady Patriots outscored Ayer-Shirley 12-1 to take a 21-16 lead. Four straight service aces by senior captain Alysia Pearce helped to set the tone for the Lady Pats' offense. Ayer-Shirley refused to pack it in.
Mitrano slammed a spike inside the back right corner of the court to kill the North Middlesex run.
Shannyn Muldoon added a pair of aces and a dig in the final points to defeat Ayer-Shirley 25-23 and take a 2-0 game lead.
The decisive third set was a back-and-forth affair as the two teams traded the game's first seven points. Rebecca Ernst knotted the game back up at 5-5 with a stealthy tip over the net. Colburn followed the Ernst tip with an ace to give the Lady Panthers a 6-5 lead. North Middlesex came storming back to tie the game at 7-7 on an ace by Morgan Perry.
The seesaw nature carried on until Jurgilewicz blasted a spike from the left side of the net to give the Lady Patriots their largest lead of the match, 12-9. That is when the momentum shifted to the Lady Patriots. Strong play from Muldoon and Amy Flournoy helped silence the Lady Panthers.
"The third game was back-and-forth," Roy said. "That has been how our season has went. Strong in the first game -- second game, we drop a little bit and in the third game, it gets interesting. Today we won because we persevered and pushed. It was great to come out of here with a win."
Playing for the last time in a Lady Patriots uniform were Jurgilewicz, captain Katherine Kouloupoulos, Pearce, Emily Medrek, Sam Meehan, Muldoon, Morgan Perry and Jackie Potvin.
Ayer-Shirley drops to 4-5 with the loss and finishes its regular season tomorrow at Leominster. Despite its record being sub .500, Ayer-Shirley might still have an outside chance at making its sixth straight district tournament appearance.
"Our athletic director is vying for a spot for us because they (the MIAA) are looking at strength-of-schedule," Ferreira said. "They've improved throughout the season. They are a great group of girls to coach. They have been outstanding as far as heart and effort."