Tuesday evening at a very warm Crestwood gymnasium, the Red Devils had an opportunity to go two games ahead of the Pirates in the standings with six division games remaining _ a near insurmountable deficit for Southeast or any other contender to overcome.
And like they did against Rootstown a week earlier at home, the Red Devils came out on fire and scored the first seven points of game one.
But the Pirates, showing their talent and experience, countered Crestwood's opening punch by scoring 11 unanswered points to go ahead 11-7 and eventually take the first game 15-12.
Crestwood rallied to take the second game, only to see Southeast come out strong in the decisive third game and eventually win the crucial match 15-12, 14-16, 15-8.
Both teams, now 9-1 overall and 6-1 in the PCL American, are poised for an exciting final stretch of the league season. It's a matter of who will stumble first, if at all.
After seeing her team fall behind early, Southeast coach Mary Tarka said her squad remained composed.
"These kids have won before, they know what it feels like to win," said Tarka, adding that her players knew that a loss would probably mean, at best, a third-place finish. "They had to win tonight to get into the championship match. My kids knew it. They've been in that championship match every year for the last four years now. It meant a lot to them and they pulled through."
Though it was a solid team effort, two players that stuck out for the Pirates were sophomore Deanna Dremann (12 kills) and senior Carrie Hill, both 5-foot-11 middle hitters.
"They made a lot of things happen," said Tarka. "Carrie Hill was the one that served a bunch of those points in that first game that brought us back. She scored a lot in the back (row)."
Hill, who finished with 18 points and 25 kills, provided the biggest hit, literally, of the night in the third game when she nailed a thunderous slam that gave the Pirates a commanding 11-3 advantage. Earlier, Southeast had broken a 1-1 tie by scoring six straight points to jump ahead 7-1.
Down 13-3, Crestwood fought gamely, cutting the deficit to 14-8 before a Red Devil return was ruled just long, giving Southeast match point.
Crestwood coach Wanda Hoffman said her team's quick start out of the gate mirrored that of an earlier-season contest between these teams, a match that the Red Devils won at Southeast.
"We did the same thing against them at their place," said the coach. "We came out with a 7-0 lead and turned around and let them come back to an 8-7 lead."
In assessing the match, Hoffman said poor decision making by her team was a factor.
"Sometimes, we didn't go to our strongest hitters when we needed to," said Hoffman. "They were hustling and working hard, just to turn around and make a mental mistake."
The second game was close throughout until Crestwood broke away from a 10-8 advantage to the brink of game point at 14-9. The Red Devils found, however, the final point hard to grasp as long volleys ensued and Southeast crept closer and closer.
Finally, the lead was completely erased when, with Dremann serving, Southeast got a point to knot things at 14-14.
To their credit, the Red Devils didn't wilt and, with Emily Cowan serving, managed to score the final two points to win 16-14.
Cowan had a huge game in a losing effort for the Red Devils. She had 10 points, 44 spikes, 13 kills, 49 passes and three blocks.
Buffy Sledz also turned in a fine performance that included five points, 70 sets, 15 spikes and one kill. Teammate Mandy Michael chipped in with seven points, three kills, six blocks and 40 passes.
For Southeast, Melissa Dillon and Angie Finch led the way in the assist
department with 26 and 21, respectively. Also, Tricia Layne added eight
kills. Her contribution was significant because she missed the first
showdown between these teams due to surgery.