CROSS RIVER – One down, two to go.
Panas, in the midst of what is expected to be the best season in program history, walked through the Section 1 Class A final in a 25-11, 25-3, 25-9 sweep of Pelham at John Jay-Cross River High School on Saturday.
The win gave Panas the first of its three major title goals for the season — sectional, regional, and state. The Panthers (18-0) reached the Class A state final last year for the first time in program history and returned a number of players from that roster.
The top-seeded Panthers have been remarkably impressive this year, sweeping every opponent during the regular season and taking home top honors at three weekend tournaments, but Saturday’s display was arguably the best Panas has been to date.
“Today, we played the way we’re capable of playing,” Panas head coach Joe Felipe said after the win. “That’s kind of the pregame talk: ‘Who can play like themselves today?’ and we were able to play our brand of volleyball.”
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Tulane-committed junior and reigning Westchester/Putnam player of the year Yvette Burcescu overpowered the third-seeded Pelicans (17-4) with her jump serve, which she developed with Felipe over the past year. The heavy topspin and speed of the serve makes it difficult for defenders to get a clean pass in the air.
“It was disastrous for them,” Felipe said, describing Burcescu’s jump serve against the Pelham defense. “It’s a weapon. We can score with it. We can get other teams out of system.”
While several Panas players names are already on the lips of local volleyball aficionados, many of the roaring supporters in the Panthers’ fan section were exposed to eighth-grader Jillian Dolman for the first time.
Dolman, who said she was not expecting to get in the match, served an ace for the final point to close out the match. The crowd erupted with a “She’s-in-eighth-grade!” chant in her honor.
“Everybody is really accepting of me,” Dolman said of being one of the youngest players on the roster. “Everybody just makes me feel like part of the team, and it’s just a really great atmosphere.”
Panas will play in the state regional semifinals Wednesday at SUNY Ulster at 5 p.m. against an opponent to be determined.
Felipe said the team dropping their first set of the year to Hen Hud in the section semifinals Thursday “woke them up,” but that it likely led to Saturday’s stellar performance.
“I think it was a good thing for us,” he said. “Dropping one set isn’t the end of the world, especially if it wakes the team up.”
“This would be a great time to start peaking,” Felipe added.