The Stamford High School volleyball team, already down two sets and in the middle of a three-point run as it tried to rally from a seven-point deficit in Game 3, seemed on the verge of taking a stranglehold on momentum when Brianna Gordon unleashed a vicious spike at the Fairfield Ludlowe defense.
That was until Ryann Casey, a relative mite on a team full of towering hitters, made like an outfielder chasing down a well-hit ball. With her back to the net and her body far beyond the baseline, Casey kept the play alive.
The end result was a Ludlowe point that spurred a clinching run and a 25-20, 25-19, 25-17 win on its home court in the semifinal round of the FCIAC Tournament.
Because of the condensed playoffs in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the Falcons were declared co-champions, their first title in the sport. Darien beat Greenwich 3-1 in the second semifinal to also earn a share of the crown.
Casey's acrobatic save was a microcosm of her team's effort.
"Those plays are the plays that keep us going," said Ludlowe's Emily Nelson, who was named the match's most valuable player. "When our effort is like that, it makes us all want to do better. This is amazing."
The former consolidated Fairfield High School won two FCIAC titles, most recently in 2000 (against Stamford), the only time since 1993 that a team other than Darien was crowned champion.
It speaks volumes of the confidence Ludlowe coach Meghan Skelton has in her players that she said after the postgame celebration, "It feels great, but I'm a little disappointed in the co-championship, but I think it's understandable given the weather."
Frustration was the sentiment for the third-seeded Black Knights (16-4), who have never won a title in four tries.
"They're a great team," Stamford coach Mike Smeriglio said of the Falcons. "They don't have many weak spots. The ball is flying out of bounds. Amazing. They're better than us. They are really good."
The most dramatic play occurred in a contentious opening set, when Stamford rallied from a 15-9 deficit to forge a 19-19 tie before Ludlowe (19-1) won five of the final six points.
With four players over 5-foot-10 -- Casey Boatwright tops out at 6-2 -- the Falcons are blessed with a multitude of weapons and a consistent quarterback in setter Kelly Rotondo. Many of the Black Knights' unforced errors were due in part to facing a constant barrage of pressure.
"We have five solid hitters and a bench full of great players that could be starting for other teams," Skelton said.
The second and third sets were near carbon copies, with Ludlowe jumping out to big leads and building cushions large enough to withstand a pair of Stamford runs.
"We should have gotten killed in Game 2," Smeriglio said. "We made a really good comeback and that's why I had high hopes for Game 3."
Nelson led the way, finishing with 15 kills, 9 service points, 8 digs and 5 aces. Boatwright added 9 kills, while Rotondo had 27 assists and Casey 6 service points and 5 key digs.
"We have so many options," Nelson said. "If one person is not doing well, we all step up. When the system is going well, you can't stop us."
Like her coach, Nelson said she would prefer the chance at an outright championship, but the circumstances were not about to dampen the accomplishment.
"We would love to have the title and share it with no one," Nelson said. "Everything says we won. This is my first gold medal and it's really exciting. And it makes us so much more excited for states."
The Falcons opened the Class LL tournament with a 3-0 win over East Hartford on Saturday.
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