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Westminster Christian stops Eagles streak in thrilling fashion

Junior Meg Paparella’s kill sent the Westminster Christian crowd into euphoria.

The fourth-ranked Wildcats (41-8) won the school’s first-ever state volleyball championship with a grueling 3-2 (25-23, 21-25, 25-17, 18-25, 15-13) victory over top-ranked and three-time reigning state champion Montgomery Academy in the Class 4A title game Thursday afternoon at Birmingham’s Bill Harris Arena.

“I just want to say how proud I am of our determination and fight in this match,” said Westminster coach Holly Richards. “We found ourselves down a couple of times and we stayed focused even in the sets we lost. We stayed calm and knew we could come back out fighting.

“Then, our composure in the fifth set is really just a testament to how much these girls wanted to win this state championship. I’m just super proud. It’s an amazing feeling because I know all the hard work these girls have put into this.”

The Eagles (27-16) led 12-10 and 13-12 in the decisive set before the Wildcats rallied for the final three points, including MVP Paparella’s kill shot to end it.

“We’ve been dreaming about this since last year and we just came out with a bunch of energy,” Paparella said. “I knew my teammates were behind me and I was just trying to get that last point to win it all.

“Our mentality is we push, and you know if you mess up, you just reset and go at it like 110 percent. I think it was that calm composure in that last set because we trust each other, and all our teammates hold each other accountable.”

Westminster Christian lost in the quarterfinals last year to Montgomery Academy.

“I think a common thread I’ve tried to instill in them the whole season was if we take care of our side of the net, good things will happen,” Richards said. “I think we have the mindset that it doesn’t matter who’s across the net. We just need to be calm, composed and everything will take care of itself.”

Westminster claimed the first set 25-23 and owned a 2-1 lead after taking the third set 25-17.

The fireworks were far from over, though.

“I think we talked about it every time we went into the huddle to just stay calm,” said Westminster’s Calli Tanielu. “The key was to stay calm and play like we know what we’re doing because we know we’re good and we showed it.”

Key sequence: Down 2-1 in sets, the Eagles rallied for a 25-18 win to even the match at 2-2 and led 5-2 and 12-10 in the final set.

“They were determined they were not going to let anything stop them from getting this,” Richards said. “It was fun to see their energy at the end. When Meg got to the front (row), she got a block, then she gave me a little head nod like, ‘Yeah, we got this.’”

“I think our girls learned they are stronger than they really know,” said Montgomery Academy coach Julie Gordon, who has 1,498 career victories. “The talent level we had at the beginning of the season and where we are now; it’s not even the same team.

“It was a game that could have gone either way. We needed a break or two, but we never quit. We never gave up. They kept the fight and the fire in their eyes, and I can’t help but be proud of them. We just came up a little short.”

Stat sheet: Paparetta led Westminster with 22 kills, 18 digs and six blocks, followed by Tanielu with 14 kills, 16 digs, four blocks and an ace, Brianna Tinsley with 10 kills and 10 digs, Sarah Kim with one kill, 24 assists, five aces and six digs, Rylee Sexton with 10 digs, Tygen Kross with 18 assists and five digs and Riley Kerce with13 digs.

Elle McBride had 18 kills, one assist, six digs and a block for the Eagles, followed by Virginia Meacham with 16 kills, one assist and three kills, Caroline McDaniel with 13 kills, two aces and five digs, Addi Vinson with two kills, 54 assists and 11 digs, Isabela Johnson with nine kills, one dig and four blocks and Pierson Hartley with five kills, one dig and two blocks.

All-Tournament Team: Joining MVP Paparella on the All-Tournament team were teammates Tinsley and Tanielu and Montgomery Academy’s Vinson, Meacha and McBride.