WINDSOR — The last step is always the hardest.
The Hopkins girls volleyball team lost to No. 1 seed Phillips Exeter, 28-26, 25-14, 25-19 Sunday in the New England Prep School Athletic Council (NEPSAC) Class A Championship final at Loomis Chaffee School.
The Fairchester Athletic Association regular-season and tournament champion Hilltoppers ran into a buzzsaw in Phillips Exeter.
There was motivation galore for the Big Red.
Phillips Exeter was trying to complete the first undefeated season in girls volleyball program history at 20-0.
Phillips Exeter had reached and lost in the NEPSAC Class A volleyball championship final the previous two seasons. The Big Red was vying for its first NEPSAC Class A volleyball title since winning back-to-back in 2014 and 2015.
Hopkins was playing in its first NEPSAC final.
“The experience of being in the previous two finals helped us so much today,” said Phillips Exeter coach Bruce Shung. “The girls displayed so much nervousness last year. To their credit, our senior co-captains channelled the feelings from those losses into motivation from day one of the preseason this year for our entire group.”
Game 1 was outstanding volleyball where teams seemingly had to win individual points two and three times in each rally.
Phillips Exeter led 12-8, 15-11 and 22-18 before Hopkins surged to forge a 23-23 deadlock.
There were three more ties before Phillips Exeter prevailed 28-26 for the early match edge.
“Phillips Exeter was so consistent. No matter what we did, they got the ball back to us,” said Hopkins senior setter Cassie Goldberg. “And the ball always came back hard.”
Senior hitters Angelle Diamond (6-foot-2, 23 kills) and Annah Shaheen (12 kills) hit powerful winners over and over off high passes from senior setter and co-captain Joy Liu to bedevil Hopkins.
In Game 2, Hopkins led 5-4 when Phillips Exeter went on a 12-3 run for a 16-8 lead. Two Diamond kills closed it out at 25-14.
In Game 3, Phillips Exeter jumped out 11-4 before Hopkins fought back to 14-13. At 20-18, Diamond took over once more carrying Big Red to the 25-19 triumph and a celebration three years in the making.
Hopkins ends its season at 19-2 overall. But the future is bright as starters Nataly Moravec, Rachael Huang and Jessica Hensel lead the cast of returnees.
“We were happy to compete in the final against such a great team as Phillips Exeter,” said Hopkins senior Goldberg. “We take home the runnerup plaque for the trophy case. We can rejoice about a great season. The school support is amazing. Look at all the people who made the trip (to Windsor) to cheer us on.”
“Today was a great challenge and a great experience,” Hopkins junior Hensel said. “This season we grew together and worked together.”
“The strong culture we have in our program now will continue,” said Hopkins coach Dina Ding. “We gained experience today but we will still be a young group. I’m really looking forward to next season.”