PROVIDENCE — As close to perfection as possible, the East Providence High School girls' volleyball team finished off an undefeated 2023 campaign by winning the Division II championship …
PROVIDENCE — As close to perfection as possible, the East Providence High School girls' volleyball team finished off an undefeated 2023 campaign by winning the Division II championship Saturday, Nov. 11.
The top-seeded Townies accomplished the feat in impressive fashion with a three-game sweep of third-seeded Cumberland at Rhode Island College's Walsh Gymnasium.
East Providence earned their 18th league win without a loss after dispatching the Clippers by the scores of 25-22, 25-15 and 25-21.
The win was actually the Townies' 19th overall this fall, including a non-league victory over Scituate at the start of the year. Cumberland's season came to a close with a 14-4 record in D-II matches.
The last time East Providence went undefeated was also the last time the program won a title, the 2005 Townies going 21-0 to take the Division I crown.
"More than anything I'm happy for the kids. They're the ones who put the time and the effort into this to reach this point," said EPHS head coach Alex Butler. "When you're undefeated it kind of weighs on your shoulders, but they came through and played really well today."
The sides reached Saturday's final in decidedly different ways.
EPHS escaped the upset bid of fourth-seeded Barrington in its semifinal match earlier in the week, going the five-set distance to earn a 3-2 victory.
Cumberland had a bit easier time of it in its final four contest against second-seeded Mt. Hope, needing four games to win 3-1.
East Providence defeated the Clippers in four sets (26-24, 25-19, 24-26, 25-12) in their only regular season outing on October 16 in Cumberland.
"It's a great accomplishment. It kind of adds more to it when you go undefeated and win a championship," said Butler, who was an assistant coach for the Townies when they last completed a perfect slate in the fall of 2004.
"But we never really talked about it during the season," he continued. "We tried to keep it to the next game, keep the focus on that because it kind of takes on a life of its own. I don't think it hit the kids until the Barrington match in the semis. We tried to keep it day-by-day, match-by-match and go from there. But it's a great accomplishment because it's a hard thing to do."
Saturday's title tilt began a bit like that encounter with the Clippers testing the Townies at the outset before East Providence exerted its will on the match.
The first set opened with Cumberland scoring the first four points before East Providence got on the board with a Keira Mullen kill.
That hit actually sparked a four-point run for the Townies to level the score. Mullen's service ace was the leveler.
The score would be tied three more times, the last coming when Malia Mullen toed the service line and delivered an ace to make it 17-apiece.
Mullen started a six-point run for the Townies with the senior serving three more aces. Teagan Abatiello added a kill and Cumberland committed a hitting error to put EP in front 22-17.
The Clippers won five of the next seven points to make things close down the stretch, but the Townies received a kill by Ella DeCosta and another spike by Keira Mullen on set point.
The Townies never trailed in the second game, which started with a Kate Bernhardt kill for the locals sent the Townies on to an early 6-1 lead. The spree also included two aces by Keira Mullen, a combo block with her sister and an unreturned Abatiello serve.
Later, EP doubled up the Clippers, 14-7, on one of the numerous Cumberland hitting errors during the set.
It was around that time, and with Daniella Escudero serving, when the Townies took complete command. EP went up by double digits initially on a Bernhardt kill, one of three she would have in quick succession.
The Townies' largest lead would be 12, coming twice at 23-11 on a Bernhardt ace and 24-12 on an Abatiello kill.
Cumberland won the next three points after that, but a Trinity Johnson-Carter tap into open space for a kill ended the game in the Townies' favor.
The third game began with the Clippers winning the first point, but that would be their last for a while.
East Providence won the next four points with Keira Mullen serving. The Townies then stretched their lead to 9-3 on three consecutive aces by Bernhardt. The locals went up 10-3 on a Malia Mullen quick tip.
Cumberland got back in it with some solid serving itself, including four unreturned. A Clipper hitting error ended the reply with them trailing 11-7.
East Providence got a little sloppy during the sequence, leading Cumberland to not only find its rhythm, but rally back all the way back to take a 15-14 edge. It was the first time the Townies trailed since being down 9-7 in the first game.
The Clippers had the momentum for the moment, upping their ad to 20-17, but a service error allowed the locals to catch their collective breaths.
East Providence would last trail 21-19, prior to to its championship-winning rally.
Escudero began it with a jab kill from the back court. Next, Keira Mullen's kill caught the far end line to square at 21 and a Cumberland hitting error made it 22-21 locals.
A DeCosta cross-court kill off a defender put EP up by a pair. An ace by Nora Fineran put the Townies on the precipice of the title, which they won when a Clippers hit sailed long.
"Cumberland did not play well today. They kind of looked like us last year," Butler said, reflecting on the Townies' 3-0 loss to Chariho in the 2022 D-II final.
He added, "People don't understand what it's like for these kids to go out in the heat of the battle and doing it without the experience. We had that from last year, and I think it showed. Once we got rolling, I think (Cumberland) kind of felt it and that was kind of it."
The championship was the eighth all-time in program history for the Townies and first in D-II. East Providence won six of seven Division I championships between 2000 and 2005, adding to its first ever D-I crown won in 1993.
The Townies actually won a state record five consecutive titles from 2002-05, two of those coming in 2004 the final year girls' volleyball was played in the spring before becoming a fall sport later that same calendar year.
It was also the first as a head coach of EP for Butler, who was the assistant to Townie legend Luis Carvalho during the six-title run. Butler took over the program in 2007 and led the locals to four more state finals without a win.
The trophy also represented the reemergence of the EPHS program, which stumbled late last decade into this one.
The Townies won just four of 25 matches in a special spring season in 2021 at the end of the COVID-19 pandemic and fall that same year.
EP dropped down to D-II last fall and lost just twice, both to Chariho. The Townies were the second seed in 2022, losing to the Chargers in the regular season and in the league final.
Chariho moved up to D-I this fall, a track the Townies are likely to follow next season, and reached the semifinals before bowing out to Coventry.
"Put it however you want it, but in two years, we've lost two games and one of those was to Chariho in the championship and then they went up and made it to the semis," Butler said of where EPHS girls' volleyball now sits.
He added, "More so than anything the program is in a good place. We won a championship. We have returning kids who are talented and young kids with promise, but you can't rest on anything.
"Every season is a different animal and it's going to come down to what the kids do this off-season to get better. We'll see how it goes from there, but we're just going to enjoy this one for a while."