MURFREESBORO – Catholic’s volleyball team ran into a buzz saw Thursday afternoon in the Class AA state championship match.
Portland (44-7) won its second consecutive state title with a 25-12, 25-20, 25-18 victory over the Lady Irish (26-10) at Middle Tennessee State University’s Murphy Center.
It was far different from Wednesday’s winners-bracket final when Portland beat Catholic 15-13 in the fifth set. The Lady Irish beat East Hamilton later Wednesday for another shot at Portland.
“Absolutely the best they’ve played against us,” Catholic coach Brent Carter said. “We went five with them yesterday. We had them 13-10 in the fifth set and couldn’t side out for the 14th point to get our serve back, so it was a much tighter battle.”
Portland beat Catholic for the second straight year in the state title mach.
Marlayna Bullington, a senior outside hitter who has committed to Missouri State to play beach volleyball, led Portland with 31 kills and 20 digs.
“We played as hard as we possibly could and they’re just a good team,” Catholic sophomore libero Cassie Kuerschen said. “I think we all worked hard. We didn’t have our best game, but we’re coming back next year stronger than this year.”
Catholic played much of the season without four starters, although senior Alexandra Carter – Brent Carter’s daughter – came back for half a set Wednesday and played the third set Thursday.
“I can’t say enough about our girls,” Brent Carter said. “We lost four starters this season. We got one of them partially back this week, so for us to make a state final and make a really good run to the state championship match with four starters out and getting one back just here at the end truly speaks to the character of these girls and how hard they work.”
After winning the first point of Thursday’s match, Catholic fell behind 12-4 and never regained the lead. The Lady Irish had six kills and eight attack errors on 41 attempts in the first set to go with two service errors.
Catholic led 10-7 in the second set before Portland rallied for an 18-17 lead. The Lady Panthers won six of the next eight points for a 24-19 lead and won the second set on Bullington’s kill.
The Lady Irish never recovered from a 15-2 deficit starting the third set.
“We started out really high error in the first set,” Carter said. “Honestly the second and third sets we played a much cleaner game and hat’s off to Portland. (Portland) played absolutely amazing.
“They dug everything, they passed better than we’ve ever seen them pass and serve receive. We were putting pressure on thembut they just rose to the challenge, so I’m not going to take anything away from them by saying we played bad because we didn’t.”
Catholic senior Olivia Cunningham, who has committed to East Tennessee State University, had 14 kills and 11 digs. She’s one of three seniors on the team.
“I wanted it more than I ever had these past four years because I’m a senior and I was like a leader,” Cunningham said, “so I wanted to lead the team to the championship, but we just fell short of our goal.”
Kuerschen had 17 digs and junior setter Sasha Cain had 17 assists.
Catholic won’t see Portland at state next year when it makes the move to Division II-AA.
“It’s not a next step for us,” Carter said. “We compete with those (Division II-AA) teams all the time and we compete exceedingly well with them so we’re not worried about the shift.
“It does create a massive problem that right now TSSAA is looking at a 13-team district that includes Nashville and Chattanooga, so you’re going to have district matches that start at 5:30, 6 o’clock at night. We gain an hour going (into Central time zone) but we lose an hour coming back. Hopefully they can get that right with the board of control and all the athletic directors to shrink that district so we’re only having to travel to Central time zone twice instead of five to seven times.”
Carter expects to put a formidable team on the court again next year.
“We’ve got a sophomore (Kuerschen) and a freshman (Grainne McGrath) starting and then our junior class is fantastic,” Carter said. “We’re going to Division II next year but we’ll still be a really, really good team. We’ll get a couple of those (injured)girls back after club season so we expect to be very, very strong again next season.”