KEENE, N.H. - All season long, members of the Keene State women's volleyball team wore warm-up jerseys with the slogan made famous by Boston Celtic star Kevin Garnett: "Anything Is Possible."
It took them 12 seasons, but the top-seeded Owls turned the impossible into the possible by winning their first-ever Little East Conference championship in dramatic fashion with a 3-2 victory over second-seed UMass-Boston at Spaulding Gym on Saturday. The scores in the five-game cliffhanger were 30-28, 21-25, 25-22, 17-25, and 17-15. But the numbers don't tell the entire story.
With the win, the Owls (29-8) tied the program record for consecutive match wins (12). The Beacons (25-9) came into the match winners of 16 out of its last 17 matches.
After four closely-contested games the two teams were tied at two-all. The Beacons, also looking for their first LEC title, jumped out to an early 7-1 lead in the fifth and deciding game. The resilient Owls fought back to tie the game 12-12 on a kill by freshman hitter Bridget O'Bryant (Merrimack, N.H.) and took their first lead on a put-back slam by junior setter Jordan Pokryfki (Wasilla, Alaska).
The teams traded points the rest of the way, with each facing the reality of a match-ending point. Freshman hitter Kristen Girard (Tivoli, N.Y.) tied the game at 15-all when her kill deflected off a Beacon player. The Owls took a 16-15 lead after Girard tipped the ball down the line.
On an unseasonably warm day in early November, the temperature inside Spaulding Gym had reached a boiling point. Could the Owls be one point away from destiny and capturing its first conference crown?
On the next serve, junior hitter Kate McWhorter (Bakersfield, Calif.) - the Beacon's blaster, who spent the entire match smashing molten missiles over the net - attempted to send the ball cross court for a potential tying point, but KSC senior middle-hitter Brittany O'Bryant (Merrimack, N.H.), with arms out stretched, blocked the ball back to the Beacon floor, giving KSC the LEC championship and sending the team to the NCAA tournament for the first time.
"I just said I was going to go for everything," said O'Bryant, about her match-winning block. "I blocked it, and I just can't believe what happened," she said. "It feels so good to be a senior and finally win the conference championship."
"We were down 7-1, but I didn't see us going down like that," said KSC Coach Bob Weiner, who paced the floor in front of the Owls' bench like an expected father waiting for news of his first-born. He felt the key play came a few points earlier when Sarah Peterson, a senior libero from Danville, N.H., sacrificed life and limb, diving full out to get McWhorter's kill attempt. "We popped the ball up and we turned around and scored on it," he said. "That was the turning point. We weren't going to lose after that."
"It was a perfect ending to a perfect season," said Pokryfki, whose parents made the trip from Alaska to take in the tournament. "We were down in the fifth game and nobody gave up. I thank every single member of the team for that. We've been dreaming about this tournament the whole year, and even though we were behind, we weren't going to let it slip through our fingers. We wanted it so badly."
Keene State was making its second trip to the finals in the past four years. The Owls lost in the 2005 championship game (3-0) to Eastern Conn. Saturday's improbable win helped erase the memories of last year's tournament when the top-seed Owls were upset victims to Eastern Conn. (3-2) in the semifinals.
The first game was an indication of what would become a shoot-out between two teams looking to change their program's history. Who would draw first? The game came down to the final two points with a pair of uncharacteristic ball-hitting errors by the Beacons, giving KSC a 30-28 win. UMB pulled away from the Owls in the closing stages of game two, winning 25-21, to knot the match at one-all. KSC answered with a 25-22 victory in game three. A kill by Girard put the Owls up 24-21, and they held on for the win. The battling Beacons, who opened up a 13-6 lead, won the fourth game handily, setting up a winner-take-all fifth game.
Drained from watching the volley of balls and emotions, fans in the stands were left to wonder how much more they could endure. Even Bill O'Bryant, the father of Brittany and Bridget, was in need of a reprieve. After spending the entire match stomping his foot on the stands and holding up series of signs that read "Champions Never Quit" and "No Mountain Too High," he appeared physically drained. Service after service, dig after dig, and point after point, the former doormats of the league battled like a pair of prize fighters, exchanging an assortment of splintering court digs with rafter-jumping blocks, and pounding-pellet points.
When it was over and the smoke from the final kill had dissipated in the air, players hugged each other for the last time. There were tears of joy and tears of despair. One team was headed to the NCAAs; the other was headed home.
"I have never won a championship, so this was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Bridget O'Bryant, a freshman hitter, who joined the team in part to play with her sister for a season. "I'm so proud of this team. We put all our heart into it. Most teams don't come back from a 7-1 deficit in the fifth game, but we left it all on the floor."
Bridget O'Bryant led the Owls with a career-high 20 kills. Girard had 14 kills. Senior libero Sarah Peterson (Danville, N.H.), who was named the tournament's MVP and later selected as the conference's Defensive Player of the Year, had a strong performance on the back row, finishing with 38 digs. Pokryfki contributed 46 assists, and Brittany O'Bryant had a game-high five blocks. Both O'Bryant sisters and Pokryfki joined Peterson on the All-LEC team announced after the match. Leading KSC to an undefeated LEC season and its first conference crown, Bob Weiner was named the LEC's coach of the year.
McWhorter, named the LEC's Offensive Player of the Year, led the Beacons with 26 kills and five blocks. UMB junior Megan MacAuley (Upland, Calif.) had 30 digs, and freshman setter Cassy Hanneman (Denver Co.) finished with 46 assists.
Coach Weiner, who took over the reins of the Owl team four years ago, has essentially built the team from scratch. "Some of these players had just joined the team as freshmen when I got here," Weiner said. "And finally they get a chance to go to the NCAA while they're all still here. Their four-year quest is now complete."
No one questioned this team's talent. But for those who doubted Keene State's determination and drive to finally get over the net and seize its first title, Bridget O'Bryant has an emphatic reply: "At one point of the season, another team told us that we didn't have heart," she said. "I think we just proved to everyone that we have so much heart in every single one of us."