FITCHBURG -- Once again, the Ayer-Shirley volleyball team has gotten off to a fast start, a familiar sight over the past couple of years. Despite missing senior captain Anna Peck due to injury, the Lady Panthers overcame a first-game loss to pick up a 15-25, 25-16, 25-17, 25-15 victory over St. Bernard's to improve to 3-0 on the young season.

"We got off to a sluggish start today, but we were able to fight through it," said Ayer-Shirley coach Donna Ferreira. "Their serves gave us trouble in the first game. I thought we made some adjustments and picked things up. Everyone stepped up today and this is a good win for us against a good team."

The Lady Panthers jumped out to a 3-0 lead behind the service of Celiena DeBalsi, but the Lady Bernardians stormed right back a lead they wouldn't relinquish. Michelle Stevens came up with seven consecutive points on her serve to turn a three-point deficit into an 8-3 lead.

Another big service run by Hannah Bagley sparked a 5-1 run as St. Bernard's opened up a 13-5 advantage. Ayer-Shirley clawed back into the game, keyed by five service points from Shanna DeBalsi as part of a 6-0 spurt that cut the two at 14-12, but it wouldn't get closer. Aleah Grady had five service points as part of a game-closing 11-3 kick by the Lady Bernardians to claim a 25-15 first-game win.

An even battle began game two as the teams split the first 26 points before Stevens gave St. Bernard's a 14-13 lead. It was the last time the Lady Panthers would trail until game four.


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Erika Esielionis reeled off six service points, including a pair of aces as part of a 12-2 run. Shanna DeBalsi closed things out with three points on her serve as Ayer-Shirley tied things up with a 25-16 second game victory.

Celiena DeBalsi got the Lady Panthers off to a good start, picking up four service points, including a pair of aces in game three. The Lady Bernardians eventually would draw within three at 19-16, but Ayer-Shirley finished the game in strong fashion with a 6-1 kick. Emma Shields did the honors of closing things out with an ace and two unreturned serves to give her team a 2-1 lead.

Trailing 3-1 early in game four, the Lady Panthers ripped off nine of the next 10 points to take control. Esielionis was the catalyst, with five service points, while Shanna DeBalsi added a kill off a Shields feed as Ayer-Shirley opened up a 10-4 advantage.

Over the next 16 points, the teams were even, as it remained a six-point game. With the score 18-12, the Lady Panthers put the game on ice, sparked by four service points from Celiena DeBalsi. On game point, Julie Maillet closed the game in style with an ace as Ayer-Shirley claimed a 3-1 match win.

"I don't think we necessarily played to our potential today, but we got the win, which is the important thing," said Ferreira. "Erika came up with some big serves for us, especially during the key run in game three. We are improving every day, and I feel like we are heading in the right direction."