If Broward County has a must-watch volleyball match each year, it’s the annual meeting between cross-town rivals St. Thomas Aquinas and Cardinal Gibbons.
Even in the rare times in which one of the squads is rebuilding — Gibbons, in this case — the intensity and emotion are hard to miss.
The host Raiders beat Gibbons in four sets on Tuesday night in front of a raucous bipartisan crowd, one in which at least one Chiefs’ player was seen coming off the court in tears. Yes, this is a big rivalry.
On one side you had the home-team supporters chanting for their classmates; on the other, Gibbons fans seemed to take joy in chanting the name of football teams (Lakeland and Don Bosco Prep) that Aquinas has lost to in past years (or in Bosco’s case, just last week).
At one point, play was delayed between the second and third games as fans traditionally change sides of the gym as do the players. Aquinas football players didn’t seem to want to leave their perch, although they eventually did — and found a new home on the opposite side of the gym.
The back-and-forth between the two cheering sections was noticed by players on both sides, and they seemed to feed off the intensity.
“We knew how tough this game was going to be so we had to keep pushing through,” Aquinas’ Kimeko Bennett said.
Aquinas took the opening game 25-19 before the young Chiefs (6-6) battled back and won Game 2 by the same score. It usually takes Gibbons a few seasons to accumulate six losses, but this is a different season off Bayview Drive.
The Chiefs, who had program matriarch Louise Crocco watching on, struggled to keep up with Aquinas in the third and fourth games as the Raiders (7-1) won 25-17 and 25-20.
“We come in here knowing what the atmosphere is going to be, and we came ready to play,” Gibbons coach Kathryn Reeber said. “We have a really young team, but I am proud of everything we did out there. We made some mistakes, but we did a lot of good things. St. Thomas has a great team, they are experienced. And they are ready to go all the way.”
Said Aquinas coach Lisa Zielinski: “I think they did a great job. I told Kathryn, ‘For rebuilding, you all look pretty darned good.’ ”
Aquinas, which moves on to play in a national tournament in Chicago, was without one of its stars. Senior Allison Belanger, the reigning Broward big-school Player of the Year, was ill and missed the big game. No matter. The Raiders were strong up front and got a combined 27 kills from Kimeko (12) and Brooke Lyons (15).
The Raiders took advantage of the youth of their opponent in the latter games, taking nice-sized leads early on in both. In Game 3, Aquinas led by 11-5 before breaking things open at 19-12. In Game 4, it was the Raiders rolling early at 9-4 and 18-12 before the Chiefs battled back.
Led by Ali Jacobs (13 kills, 11 digs) and Sarah Martin (34 assists), Cardinal Gibbons was able to stay within striking distance.
“We had to fight for every point. If we sat back and thought they were going away, well, they showed us something different,” Zielinski said. “Our girls showed their character by being able to bounce back and take control. We needed to show that to ourselves and everyone else that we were able to do it.”