Volleyball: Strong finishing leads Gardiner past Rival Cony

GARDINER — Try as it might, the Gardiner volleyball team didn’t start out strong once in any of its three sets against its biggest rival.

Fortunately for the Tigers, they’re pretty good at finishing — and with a bit of late-game success, those minimum three sets were all they needed.

Gardiner defeated Cony 3-0 (25-11, 25-12, 25-21) in Wednesday’s Class B Clash at Gardiner Area High School. The Tigers overcame some early challenges from the Rams in all three sets to earn a Sweep of the Matchup and maintain their unbeaten start to the season.

“We’ve been working on staying controlled and calm in any situation, and I think that’s really helping us right now,” said Gardiner head Coach Tiffany Grover. “We’ve been able to control the ball on our side of the court, and when you get into situations like tonight, that’s a big help.”

After Gruber made a key block at the net to give Gardiner (9-0) the first point in the opening set, Cony won four of the next five points to take a 4-2 lead. Once the Tigers broke serve, though, Lizzy Gruber served the next nine points to key a 23-7 run for the home team to close out the first set.

Cony (5-5) recovered some momentum to begin the second set as the teams split the first 22 points. Yet Gardiner again closed out a set strong after breaking serve as strong serving from Danica Martin and Emily Grady fueled a 14-1 run that Yana Montell completed with a remarkable save that led to the game-clinching point.

“We’ve been working on being scrappy and playing good defense, and that’s helped us a lot to save some of those points,” Grover said. “We run a pretty good offense, but our defense is usually lacking, so we’ve really been working on hustling and hitting the floor for everything.”

Although the third set saw Gardiner get off to his best start to a game as he established a 7-2 lead, Cony answered back with a 6-0 run. Still, the Tigers were able to get back in front once more, and while the Rams didn’t let the home team run away with it, the home team ultimately secured the match-clinching set win.

Even in first- and second-set wins that were lopsided in the end, there were times when Gardiner needed points to stifle Cony’s early momentum. In the third set, the Rams pulled back within a point after the Tigers responded to the visitors’ 6-0 run by establishing and maintaining a four-point lead.

In all three instances, Gardiner was able to get those points whenever he needed them. The first- and second-game breaks set up dominant runs that secured comfortable set victories, and in the third, another crucial save with the Tigers leading just 23-21 set up match point.

“Like Coach said, we’ve definitely become more scrappy,” Gruber said. “Even the teams that struggle in our league, they’re so scrappy, so being more aggressive, diving for loose balls, keeping the ball in the air and things like that, they’re all super important because every point matters.”

Gardiner, which a year ago did not lose a single set in its first nine matches, has lost just three (and only one of its past 27) in 2022. The Tigers have won 25 of their past 26 matches since the start of the 2021 season, the only defeat coming at the hands of Cape Elizabeth in last year’s state semifinals.

It’s all come, as Gruber acknowledged, as part of a golden era in girls sports at Gardiner. It’s not just volleyball succeeding at the school; softball just ended a 42-year state championship drought, field hockey is 8-1, and the girls basketball team, which Gruber is a part of, has the same Gold Ball ambitions that she and her volleyball teammates do.

“We have always had an Athletic grade, but we’re also super academic and smart, and that helps us on the court as well,” said Gruber, a recent St. Joseph’s University basketball commit. “Killing it on the floor with kids you’ve grown up with your whole life, it’s an amazing feeling.”

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