GAINESVILLE — The past two seasons the Chautauqua Lake volleyball team has faced heartbreak at the Class D Far West Regional.
After getting down 19-13 in the third set to Section V’s Alexander with the sets tied at 1-1, it looked like Chautauqua Lake was heading toward misery again on Friday night at Letchworth High School. But this young group of Thunderbirds never feared that was going to happen.
Chautauqua Lake rallied to take that third set 26-24, going up 2-1 and then it rode that momentum to a 25-16 fourth-set victory to finally get over the Far West Regional hump and into the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Championship next weekend in Glens Falls.
“It’s so beyond words,” Chautauqua Lake head coach Joanne Meadows said about her team advancing past the Far West Regional. “I don’t think I ever thought this was a rebuilding year, I think everyone else kind of thought it was because you lose seven seniors and suddenly you have a whole new team. I think people took us for granted a little bit and I’m just so proud of these kids. The way they came together and were there for each other… it’s beyond my words right now.”
Two years ago Chautauqua Lake was swept by Pavilion, last year the Thunderbirds fell to Harley Allendale Columbia in a five-set thriller, but this year they were able to get past the trojans 3-1 with scores of 25-15, 18-25, 26-24, 25-16.
“It’s so amazing,” Chautauqua Lake senior Brynn Engdahl said about making it to states. “We’ve been trying for the last three years and it’s been sad not making it. But this time, it’s like all of it is worth it, it’s so nice to finally make it.”
Even with a young roster, Chautauqua Lake brought a lot of experience into the Far West Regionals and it showed in the opening set where the Thunderbirds looked dominant.
Chautauqua Lake jumped on Alexander early, going up 7-2, then leading by as much as 15-4. The Trojans picked it up to end the set, but the blueprint to a Chautauqua Lake victory was evident in that first set victory.
However, the Section V champion Alexander did not plan to go quietly and in the second set the Trojans were able to stifle Chautauqua Lake. The Trojans controlled the whole pace of the second set, not allowing Chautauqua Lake to get into a rhythm, giving up just one run of five to the Thunderbirds.
With thing even in the third set, Alexander continued with the momentum and for a brief moment it looked like the Thunderbirds were going to crumble. Meadows saw maybe an inkling of doubt creeping into her team and called an early timeout down 7-3, and while the score didn’t change much immediately, Chautauqua Lake was determined to win that crucial third set.
“I never doubt them,” Meadows said about her team. “I always feel like they get down a couple and I think part of being so young is they really believe in each other and that they can come through. There was when I called a timeout once and I saw their faces started to look a little nervous and I said ‘cut their lead in half, that’s all we need to do right now regardless of the outcome of this third set’ and they did and they just kept building on that. Once they get a couple in a row it takes their doubt away and they started playing strong again.”
With the Trojans just six points away from victory, Chautauqua Lake began to storm back with four straight, then a huge run of seven put the Thunderbirds in the driver seat at 24-20. Alexander managed to pull level, but Chautauqua Lake was playing with all the confidence in the world and closed it out 26-24.
The fourth set wasn’t Chautauqua Lake’s largest margin of victory, but it was its most dominant. At no point did it look like Alexander would even creep back into the game after getting down 9-3.
“Definitely it’s a lot of excitement,” Engdahl said about getting an early lead in the fourth set. “Our coach has always taught us to first be in control. So I tried to just center our team and settle them and to get to that point where we’re balanced between having all that hype and being in control.”
Just like it has all year, Chautauqua Lake received help from all ages, senior Ava Olson led with nine kills, three aces, 12 digs, nine assists and three blocks; senior Brynn Engdahl scored seven kills and eight digs; sophomore Jeanine Group delivered 10 kills; freshman Karagan Fairbank stood out with three kills, two aces, 15 digs and 17 assists; eighth-grader Noli Paddock hammered nine kills, two aces and a block; and seventh-grader Alice Scarpine added 10 digs.
“We have four seniors,” Meadows said about her team. “Stephanie (Orton) is out with a concussion, so we have three seniors, we have a junior, a sophomore, three freshmen, an eight grader and a seventh grader. When you look at that, I think there was a lot of people who questioned what we were doing this year and questioned the wisdom of me putting a seventh-grade libero out there. But I will tell you that not only has it made us a stronger team, but I think it’s made our seniors better people. They’ve really stepped up and brought these little kids along with them, they’ve been great role models to them, fantastic talking them through tough points on the court. I don’t think I could have asked for a better makeup of a team actually.”
Meadows will take Chautauqua Lake for the first time to the state finals, but brings her experience of two state titles with Mayville in 1993 and 1994.
“I just want them to play their game,” Meadows said about states. “I’ll probably watch some of the teams on YouTube, but I’m not really a coach that adjusts gameplan a lot. We made some adjustments for Panama, but the stuff we’ve been doing all year is what’s got us here and I want to build on that.”
Chautauqua Lake’s state run will begin next Saturday night at 7:15 p.m. when it plays Section IV’s Candor at Cool Insuring Arena in Glens Falls.
“It’s so amazing, especially being a senior,” Engdahl said about advancing to states. “It’s such an accomplishment to even go there. I am so happy to have this privilege and do it with my teammates who I love most. It’s honestly a feeling I can’t even explain.”