Trailing two games to one in the semifinals of the Southern Connecticut Conference tournament on Thursday, Shelton lost one of its top players to injury in its showdown with Cheshire at Murray Gymnasium.
When senior all-SCC selection Reem Abdel-Hack left the match with a lower body injury, game four was tied at 3. From there, the second-seeded Gaelettes banded together and rallied back for a thrilling 3-2 (25-19, 20-25, 23-25, 25-22, 15-13) triumph to advance to the final for the first time since 2010.
Jessica Jayakar, a junior, stepped up in the fifth game, knocking down the match-winning point to send the Gaelettes to the SCC final for the second time in school history.
“Cheshire is a team we always want to beat.” Jayakar said. “There is a rivalry between us. We just wanted to so bad, we just wanted it more than them.”
Jayakar notched 19 kills, while sophomore Greta Gelumbickas stepped in capably in the middle for Abdel-Hack, who did not return.
“I think they thought we were done (after the injury) so they thought they were going to sweep right in,” Shelton head coach LeAnne Bianchine said. “Jess was incredible and our little sophomore (Gelumbickas), as tiny as she is, she came in and did her job… We needed her to be smart and she was.”
Shelton will face top-seeded Guilford in the final on Saturday at 6 p.m. at East Haven High. The Indians defeated Law in the other semifinal.
“We are hungry,” Bianchine said. “They wanted it, but now they want it even more because they know they’re going to have to come out and play twice as hard.”
The Rams (16-5) were looking for their 22nd title game berth in their 25th consecutive semifinal appearance. They appeared to be in good shape holding a 2-1 lead and an early 6-5 edge in game four, but they could not hold off the resilient Gaelettes when their hitting faltered.
“We had opportunities,” Cheshire head coach Sue Bavone said. “Our hitters, outside of Lindsey (Abramson), we really didn’t have anyone swinging hard for kills. We kept the ball in play, but against a team like that everything is going to come back.”
After securing the 25-22 win game four, the Gaelettes raced out to a 3-0 lead in game five on the opening serve of setter Jess Foss (34 assists).
Cheshire pulled even on Julia Bartiet’s service, before the Rams went ahead 10-8. Shelton then went on 4-0 flurry and never trailed again, despite Cheshire fighting off one match point.
“We needed to pressure them more,” Bavone said. “At this time of the year, your hitters have to come up and swing.”
With the win, Shelton is in position to win its second league title in second championship berth, one of their goals since the preseason.
“We’ve been working really hard in practice to try to get the title,” Jayakar said.