LINWOOD — Had Mainland Regional High School charged admission to the girls volleyball Cape-Atlantic League Tournament championship match between its Mustangs and visiting Absegami, Athletic Director Mike Gatley and his staff would have only been able to charge for the edge of a seat — because that’s all any of the fans in attendance would have needed for the 90 minutes it took to decide this year’s league champion.

It was a heart-pounding, white-knuckle ride from start to finish, with Mainland fighting back from a 20-16 deficit in the decisive third set to score a 25-23 victory in that set and a 2-1 win in the match, giving the Mustangs the first league title in program history. This under second-year coach Torie Hoyt-Rich, who came into the job with an extensive coaching background in other sports but no volleyball experience.

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“I am almost speechless, I’m so proud of these girls,” Hoyt-Rich said. “Absegami played absolutely amazing today. In that last timeout, I told my girls, ‘it’s going to come down to who wants this more. Do you want this more? Do you want this team to come beat you on your home court?’ And they did what they had to do. It comes down to heart. It absolutely comes down to heart, and I always tell these girls they have to dig deep. And I feel like they dug deep today.”

Absegami (16-6) got off to a great start, winning the first set 26-24 on the strength of two straight aces from star senior outside hitter Jackie Fortis, but Mainland (17-1) bounced back in a big way in the second set, building a 19-12 lead before eventually cruising to a 25-16 win. That set up the decisive third set — a see-saw battle that tested the nerves and resolve of not only both teams, but both fan bases.

“My head is pounding. That was crazy. The emotion in here — I can’t believe we pulled it out. It makes me so happy to see all these seniors finally get what we wanted,” said Mainland senior outside hitter Bella Canesi, who went toe-to-toe with Fortis, trading monster slams throughout the match. “We just had to get the ball back, get the next point.”

In that third set, Absegami built a 12-8 lead before Mainloand stormed back to tie it at 12. The Braves went ahead 16-13 on a huge block by Ayana Crandell, but again the Mustangs answered, pulling to within 16-14 on a kill from Laziah Wilson. Late in the match, Absegami took a 20-16 lead on an ace from Crandall and seemed poised to win the title, but Mainland battled back again and got to within 23-22 on an ace from senior Liv Leap, forcing the Braves to call a timeout.

“As seniors and captains, myself, Bella and Cadence, we had to gather out team together, and our coaches did a great job calling timeouts when we needed them. But as seniors, we knew it was our time to step up and pull through for our team. During that timeout our coaches reminded us that this was it, this was what we worked for and it’s all on the line right now. Our coaches just reminded us that this was the moment when we had to pull through,” Leap said. “Mentally, you just have to give your all. In the huddles between points we had to pick each other up and you have to tell each other that it’s not over, we just have to get the next ball up. It’s a constant reminder that it’s not over until that final match point is scored.”

Mainland took a 24-23 lead on a pair of big-time slams from Canesi — who is committed to Towson University to play softball. Then, a block at the net from basketball star Kaitlyn Boggs ended the match.

“They are so good. They are always such good competition and I love playing against them because it’s always an exciting game,” Canesi said of Absegami. “To be a senior and win this — this is all I really wanted. I’m excited for the state playoffs but I’m so excited that we clinched the first CAL title for this program.”

Mainland turned the tide down the stretch by getting back to what made the Stangs the No. 1 seed heading into this tournament — having the offense run through senior setter Cadence Fitzgerald, perhaps the best setter in South Jersey. Fitzgerald absolutely filled up the stat sheet, finishing with 27 assists, 10 digs, five blocks, two kills, 10 service points and seven aces.

“Gami was hitting all the right spots. Where we struggled in the beginning was getting the ball to Cadence. When we get the ball to Cadence and can set up a good play, that’s where we can succeed,” Hoyt-Rich said. “We call Cadence our quarterback because she leads our team and she keeps that positivity we need. She’s absolutely a difference maker on the court and she’s somebody we’ll really miss next year. She has set multiple school records this year.”

Fans also were treated to seeing two of the top offensive players in South Jersey go at it, as Canesi finished with 14 kills and eight digs while Fortis countered with 13 kills and 10 digs.

“I know (Canesi) is going Division I to Towson for softball, but I think she’s toying with the idea of playing volleyball, too. She has this volleyball thing in her head now,” Hoyt-Rich said. “And Fortis is an absolutely amazing player. It’s so fun to watch her play. I think she and Bella have been rivals for the past four years — it’s been a fun rivalry, they are friends off the court. But Bella, you can’t stop her when she’s on.”

Since Hoyt-Rich and her assistants, Kelly Echevarria and Bill Wilcox, have taken over the program, all the Mustangs have done is gone 27-5, including 16-1 in CAL regular-season games, and won the program’s first league title.

“This is everything,” Hoyt-Rich said. “This is the first time we’ve ever won a CAL title and we’re hoping we can keep that title here (in years to come). This game, going into playoffs, was really what we needed. We needed to be riding a high going into the state playoffs.”

Added Canesi, “we’re a really close group of seniors, and all the other girls, we’re trying to bring them up and build them up for next year so they can be just as good.”

“This is completely amazing and overwhelming. As seniors, we’ve worked all four years in high school to get to this moment — and we’re not done. We’re going into the playoffs third-seeded in South Jersey Group 3, and we’re coming in hot. We’re excited and ready. We’re fired up,” Leap said. “We didn’t want it to go to three sets but they won the first set and got ahead of us. But that never stops us. When we got to that third set we knew this was it. We’ve worked four years for this and we knew this was the end.”

Mainland now is firmly entrenched in the conversation of the best programs in the Cape-Atlantic League, along with the likes of Absegami, Pleasantville and Cedar Creek.

“Being in that conversation puts a lot of pressure on us but also gives us a lot to look forward to in the coming years,” Leap said. “The seniors are leaving, but we’re so happy with the program we’ve helped build the past four years. Holding that trophy, that end point — it’s unbelievable. I thought about it, but it’s an unbelievable moment to hold that trophy and be with the teammates you’ve been with for four years.”

What’s next: Mainland travels to St. Joseph Academy on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. Absegami hosts Pennsauken on Friday in the opening round of the state playoffs, time TBA.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays

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