Needham tops in Division 1 volleyball

WORCESTER — The Division 1 state volleyball championship has been dominated by Barnstable and Newton North for the past nine years — they are the only two teams to win the state title since 2010.

Now, there is a new sheriff in town.

Needham edged Winchester 3-1 (25-22; 23-25; 25-23; 25-16) at Worcester State University to capture the Rockets' first Division 1 state championship.

Lila Carr (14 kills), Olu Ajayi (12 kills), and Karen Nie (19) starred up front for the Central-West Division champions as they finished the season 21-0. Things were not always so rosy for the Rockets but head coach Courtney Chaloff, in her sixth season, completed the true 180 with the program for an undefeated state championship banner season.

* The year before I started coaching (at Needham) the program was 0-20,” said Chaloff. * So, we've never made a sectional appearance let alone, so I'm very proud of them. The whole team really stepped up.”

In the first set, Needham trailed throughout, but Winchester couldn't pull away and never led by more than four points. The Rockets tied things up 17 before Olivia Kierstead took over with her service game and back line defense to get Needham in front, 23-20.

Winchester again built an early lead in the second stanza and allowed Needham to hang around as Kierstead was at it again with five consecutive service-point wins to get the Rockets back within striking distance, but still trailing, 16-15. Lia Cagnetta snagged 25 digs throughout the match in her first year as libero and settled Winchester down with her steady dig play on the back line to stymie middle hitters Carr and Ajayi. Winchester stole the second set.

* I think some nerves early, but I thought we overcame, went to the third set, we fight back and give ourselves an opportunity and if you win you never know,” said Winchester head coach John Fleming, who's team knocked off Barnstable, winners of six of the past nine D1 state championships, in the state semifinals. * (Needham) kind of opened that thing up and the momentum obviously swung hard their way and it's hard to fight back. But that's a great team we just lost to and I told the girls there is nothing to hang their heads about.”

The Rockets led most of the way in the third set, but Grace Thompson (13 kills) and Camille Tosque (11 kills) helped the Sachems slice into the large lead late in the contest. Winchester (25-1) squeezed the deficit to one, 24-23, but Needham held on.

The fourth and final set was anticlimactic, as Needham rattled off nine of the final 11 points in the 25-16 victory. Karen Nie handled the kill duty, with six of her game-high 19 kills down the stretch.

* The depth of our team has been one of our biggest assets all year. I'm just in awe of the depth on this team and they challenge each other every day in practice and it really paid off today,” Chaloff said. * (Nie and Skala) stepped up big time in the end and we just kept saying, ‘We will because we can,' and I had no doubt in the team's abilities.”