FAIRFIELD – The first time Fairfield Ludlowe and Darien met this season in volleyball, the result was an exciting five-set battle that Darien managed to win. And the way the first 2½ sets in tonight’s FCIAC quarterfinal were unfolding, it was looking as if we were headed for another lengthy thriller.
After splitting the first two sets — with a total score of 49-49 — the third game was knotted at 15-15. Then Ludlowe showed why it had the better record and earned the higher seed. The taller Falcons finally managed to open up some room and went on to a 3-1 (24-26, 25-23, 25-18, 25-19) victory.
The Falcons probably weren’t too elated to see coach Laurie LaRosso and her Blue Wave earn the spot opposite them in the quarterfinals. Even if Darien hadn’t captured a league title in five years and won 11 of 18 regular-season matches, it’s still Darien. And today Darien looked like the old Darien . . . at least for 2½ sets.
“Darien is a stellar program, a dynasty,” Ludlowe coach Meghan Skelton said after her third-seeded team earned a semifinal berth against rival Fairfield Warde. The Mustangs, the No. 7 seed, upset No. 2 Greenwich. “Darien is never a team you want to draw. Nobody ever wants to play Darien.”
Ludlowe, seeking its first league championship since 2015, broke the 15-all tie in the third set and finished on a 10-3 run to take a 2-1 lead. The Falcons kept the momentum, racing to a 9-3 lead in the fourth set before Darien gave it one more try, tying it up at 18. But led by Maddie Corbett, Ava Sanborn, Amy Lumaj, Jo Blanco and Margaret Nolan, the Falcons scored seven of the match’s final eight points to win.
Ludlowe (now 17-3) had entered the playoffs as the No. 3 seed and Darien was sixth. But those numbers don’t matter much in the postseason; the Blue Wave have won 22 league titles.
“I think it changed when we starting missing a lot of serves and they got their serves in,” said LaRusso. “Before that we were playing well. They had a better record but I teach that anything can happen in a tournament. We’re all 0-0 when a tournament starts.”
Darien didn’t seem fazed at all by the seeds or records.
“Darien is a great team and they beat us before,” Corbett said. “But we really wanted revenge and in the third game everyone started stepping up.”
“The loss was a wakeup call for us,” Blanco added. “We know Darien’s great history but in that third set we shut off our minds and let our bodies take over.”
For Ludlowe, Corbett had 11 kills and three blocks, Sanborn had 35 assists, eight service points and five digs, Lumaj had seven kills and six blocks, Blanco had 18 digs, 11 points and six kills, and Nolan had 18 digs and seven points.
Elaina Cummiskey led Darien with 14 kills, 13 digs, 11 service points, three aces and one block. Sophomore hitter Aerin Bowman had seven kills, four blocks and two aces, Leilani Gillespie had six kills and two blocks and Lindsey Fay added 10 service points and nine kills.
“There is a lot of history to our program,” Cumminsky said. “So we have a lot of pride. But we lost some of what we had. People stopped having fun and we just gave them some points.”
The first set was a back and forth affair with neither team getting ahead by more than three points until a 7-2 Ludlowe run, led by Blanco, put the Falcons up 19-15. But Darien stormed back to tie at 22 before Ludlowe scored the next two points. The Blue Wave, however, finished strong by scoring the next four points to win the game.
“I think we had butterflies early but the kind of butterflies that are good,” Sanborn said. “It was good energy and we kept the energy up because we didn’t want it to end yet.”
Game 2 continued the close, back and forth theme after the Falcons took a 15-8 lead early on. Darien never quite got even but wouldn’t relent, either. The Blue Wave closed to within one at 24-23 until a final unforced error evened then match for the Falcons.
No surprise that halfway through Game 3 the score was tied 15-15. But led by hitters Lumaj, Soderlund and Corbett, the Falcons took off.
“You can’t teach height,” Skelton said of her team’s obvious advantage. The Falcons have four girls between 6-feet and 6-foot-4. “I’ll take it.”
That 10-3 spurt turned into a 19-7 run after Ludlowe raced to a 9-3 lead in Game 4. But anyone who thought it was over doesn’t understand Darien.
“We’re upset now but we won’t let it get us down,” Cumminsky said about the upcoming state tournament. FYI: Last year Darien reached the state championship game after losing in the FCIAC playoffs.