AYER -- Seedings can generally be thrown out the window come District time, especially in volleyball. Upsets are by number only as proven by Millis' current run of back-to-back District titles despite composing a 13-25 record in the last two regular seasons. So while the fourth-seeded Ayer-Shirley volleyball team was on paper a favorite in their opening round game, they knew they would have their hands full. A battle tested Tri-County team proved to be too much on this night, outlasting the Lady Panthers 25-22, 25-23, 20-25 and 25-20 to advance to the quarterfinals.
"It is tough when you get to the post-season because you are going to run into teams you aren't very familiar with and that never helps," said Ayer-Shirley coach Donna Ferreira. "I don't think we played our best game by any means, but we were in it throughout. We had a very good season, but this certainly is a disappointing way to end it."
From the start of game one, the Lady Panthers found themselves in a hole, falling by five twice, the second time coming at 14-9. But Ayer-Shirley eventually put together a solid stretch of play, reeling off a 9-2 run to grab the lead. Shanna DeBalsi and Anna Peck were the catalysts with three service points each as a five-point deficit was turned into a two-point advantage at 18-16.
Just as it seemed the first game might be slipping away, Lauren Hall got the Lady Cougars back on track, picking up a spike to go along with four consecutive service points to put her team up 21-18. Tri-County held off a late Lady Panthers charge, closing the game out on a Bridget McHugh serve and riding the great setting of Morgan Gould (10 sets) to a 25-22 game one victory.
Ayer-Shirley showed more life in the early going of game two, breaking open a 3-3 tie with a 6-1 spurt to grab control. Peck, who was outstanding in her final game, was the star with five service points while Clara Watson added a kill to give the Lady Panthers a 9-4 edge.
The Lady Cougars responded with nine of the next 11 points to take their first lead of the game. McKenzie Easterbrooks picked up five service points, including an ace while Hall added a kill and a block as Tri-County grabbed a one-point advantage at 12-11.
A Peck ace gave Ayer-Shirley a 20-16 lead and seemingly but them in control, but the Lady Cougars closed out the game on a furious run to grab a 2-0 lead. Tri-County scored nine of the game's final 11 points; their second 9-2 run of the game, keyed by McHugh's four service points and ended when Gould set Hall for a game-clinching spike that pushed the Lady Panthers to the edge of elimination.
Facing a must-win third game, Ayer-Shirley rode six service points by Celiena DeBalsi and a pair of Peck blocks to a 6-0 lead, but once again the Lady Cougars answered with a big run of their own. Easterbrooks came up with six service points, including a pair of aces while Hall added three points on her service with two aces as part of a 12-2 spurt that gave Tri-County a 12-8 advantage.
Trailing 16-12 and with their season on the line, the Lady Panthers put together their best stretch of play on the night, closing out the game with 13 of the final 17 points. Celiena DeBalsi got things rolling with six service points while Shanna DeBalsi added three kills off sets from Erika Esielionis. Peck closed things out with four service points, aided by a pair of kills from Watson as Ayer-Shirley roared back for a 25-20 win to close the gap to 2-1.
Game four saw the teams trade runs in the early going as they battled to an 11-11 tie. Eventually, the Lady Cougars would earn some breathing room, sparked by four consecutive service points from Colleen Mistler to open up a 16-12 lead.
A couple of service points by Peck got the Lady Panthers within two at 17-15, but it would get no closer. Ashley Monterotti picked up three service points and an ace while McHugh chipped in two service points. With the score 24-20, a misplayed spike sailed wide, giving Tri-County a 25-20 game four win and a 3-1 match victory.
"I thought Anna had a real strong game and we got some solid runs from Shanna, Erika, Celiena and Clara," said Ferreira. "Our communication was a little lacking today and we made some unforced errors that really cost us, but I am proud of the kids' effort and of what they achieved this season."