LEWISBORO — After taking a huge sigh of relief, John Jay coach Tom Rizzotti was able to take-in and savor the moment — a sweep of the defending Class A section champions, and a berth in his sixth section final.
After a dogfight all season in Class A with Yorktown and Panas, the Indians chief realized just how much of an advantage it was to grab the No. 2 seed and host each match until the finals.
“I knew with Yorktown’s record that it was getting No. 1, and all I kept saying was, ‘We need to win out because I want the No. 2, I want a home (match) for the semis,” said Rizzotti after a 28-26, 25-15, 25-19 win. “Doing this in (Panas’) gym, with their crowd behind them, as opposed to our crowd — it’s just so much harder.”
Rizzotti would know from experience; the Indians swept Panas on the road earlier this season. The Panthers got the better of them in their next rendezvous, in which Panas took the lead in the league standings, which eventually led to its league championship.
“Somebody asked me, ‘How do you win the power league, and get the No. 3 seed over a team that came in second in the power league?’ It almost doesn’t make sense,” Panthers coach Joe Felipe said. “Do I think the (match) would’ve been different if it was at our place? Maybe after we lost that first set we would have energy from our crowd. But, let’s take nothing away from (John Jay), they outplayed us and they deserve to win.”
Panas (13-4) led most of the first game, even holding match-point to the Indians, 24-21, when John Jay libero Theresa Swertfager stepped up to serve.
“I don’t know if I said it out loud or not; I might have, but I was like, ‘This couldn’t have worked out better,’” Rizzotti said. “I think on the season (Theresa) might have six (service errors) and a ton of aces.”
Swertfager (pictured below), who finished with three aces and 10 digs, served to a 25-24 Indians lead.
“That girl is the definition of ‘clutch,’” said Rizzotti, who will be seeking his first section title in 11 years with the program.
John Jay held the momentum the rest of the match, holding sizable leads after taking the opening game. Rizzotti said he was confident the girls would win the game after tying it up at 24-24.
“These girls don’t understand the word ‘quit’ and I knew once we got to that point, that we had that (game) in hand,” he said. “It’s important to not stop, and we talk about needing to push and needing to not let-up on the other team. We semi-joke, but I always tell the girls, ‘I prefer to see you 20-20 rather than 20-10 — you make me nervous when we’re up 20-10; if it’s 20-20, I know we have a really good shot. When we’re up with a big lead, the girls tend to get a little, ‘Ok, we got this,’ but tonight they didn’t — tonight they pushed.”
Swertfager reflected on that first game after the match.
“I thought, ‘We are not losing this game,’” she said. “I don’t care if people get burns or if they get bruises — it doesn’t matter, we’re winning this game.
Swertfager, who will play softball for the University of Florida upon graduating, said the home crowd helped the team get “pumped” and “motivated” for Wednesday’s contest.
“It all starts with passing, then setting, then hitting — all three were amazing today,” she said.
Eilish Newcomb (pictured right) had a team-high 10 kills in what Rizzotti said was “by far” the best he’s ever seen her play. Her sister, Molly, added six kills. Taylor McCarthy added a solid seven kills, 16 assists and eight digs.
The Indians (17-3) will take on top-seeded Yorktown (18-1) in the final on Friday at Hen Hud at 5:30 p.m. in a match Felipe says will breed a fine replacement for the defending champs.
“I think whoever wins that match on Friday is going to do a great job representing (Section 1) all the way up to states,” he said. “It would be hard-pressed to find a team that’s going to beat this caliber of play.”
Swertfager, who will now get the chance to win a section title on the home court of her mother, Hen Hud coach Diane Swertfager, isn’t worried about Yorktown’s boisterous crowd, otherwise known as “The Crop”.
“We’re going to be bigger and louder,” she said.
Here’s my video recap of the match:
All photos were taken by Frank Becerra Jr. of The Journal News. View Frank’s stellar 64-photo gallery here. There are some really amazing shots in there — definitely worth a look.