HAMDEN – Over the last couple of years, it has become apparent Hand and Sacred Heart Academy are destined to play long and close matches. Wednesday evening in Hamden was no exception.
Coming from behind in the fifth and final game, Hand outlasted the Pacers 3-2 in a Southern Connecticut Conference interdivision match which took just over two hours to complete. With the comeback in the final game, the Tigers won by scores of 24-26, 25-20, 25-19, 18-25 and 16-14 at Sacred Heart Academy.
“Last year was the same thing,” Hand’s Amanda Gentile said after finishing with 14 digs, 12 kills and four aces. “We really wanted to win this. We pushed as hard as we could and we never gave up.”
The two SCC rivals split five-game matches last year, each winning on their home court.
Gentile’s effort was key to the victory as she always seemed to be around the scoring. Gentile’s top moments came in the final part of the decisive fifth game when a pair of kills gave the Tigers leads of 14-13 and 15-14, before an unforced error by the Pacers ended the match.
“We never gave up,” Hand coach Ally Johnson said after her team improved to 2-1. “We are coming off a loss to Amity so this was big. We fought the whole game and fought to the end, even when we were down.”
After the Pacers forced the fifth game with a dominant fourth game, Hand used a pair of kills by Kaitlyn Martin to take a 5-1 lead in the fifth. A pair of aces by Gentile had the Tigers on top 8-2, before Sacred Heart rallied.
Three errors by the Tigers evened the final game at nine, before the Pacers took a 12-10 lead on a block by Courtney Clarkin. With numerous chances to close out the match, the Pacers were unable to do so as a pair of errors by the Pacers evened the game at 13, setting up Gentile’s late heroics.
“We are a young team,” Sacred Heart Academy coach Mia Malafronte said after her team fell in its season opener. “We only have three returning players who have full time varsity experience. We are an inexperienced team. I think that inexperience hurt us tonight. Hand is a great team. Their middle (Gentile) was wonderful. She is a solid player. She knew where to put the ball.”
That inexperience Malafronte talked about showed in the second game as the Pacers failed to build off an exciting first game win. Communication issues led to a handful of Hand points, putting the Tigers up 18-9.
A pair of kills by Anna Claire Luciani and another by Liz Mackey, after a terrific diving save by Caroline Kent, got the Pacers within six, but three consecutive errors by the Pacers closed out the second game.
The Pacers led 17-14 in the third game after kills by Clarkin and Claudia Capozzo, but Hand again had an answer. An ace by Martin gave Hand a 20-19 advantage and three straight errors by the Pacers had them in a 23-19 hole.
“I told them to control what we can control and good things will happen,” Johnson said. “They communicated out there. We played as a team tonight, not as individuals.”
Despite the loss to start the season, Malafronte, who still resides in New Hampshire but has committed to coaching the Pacers, was encouraged by what she saw from her team. Malafronte stays in Connecticut with a relative during the week, displaying the commitment it takes to be successful.
“I like what I see,” Malafronte said. “You don’t want to give the game away. I thought we fought for every point out there tonight.”
As to why she still resides in New Hampshire, but coaches in Hamden, Malafronte had a simple but clear-cut answer.
“I told the team and many were upset when they were told I was moving,” Malafronte said. “I promised them, no matter what, I would come back and coach them. I am committed to them.”
Setter Sarah Underkoffler led the Pacers with 26 assists. Capozzo had 20 digs and 15 kills, while Luciani added 12 kills and four blocks.
Olivia Finke added 16 digs for the Tigers and Chika Ogbejesi had 26 assist to run the offense.
Hand 3, Sacred Heart Academy 2
Game scores: Hand 24-26, 25-20, 25-19, 18-25, 16-14.
Notes: Hand – Amanda Gentile 12 Kills, 4 Aces, 14 digs, Olivia Finke 16 digs, Chika Ogbejesi 26 assists; SHA – Sarah Underkofler 26 Assists, Anna-Claire Luciani 12 kills, 4 Blocks, Claudia Capozzo 15 kills, 20 digs.