GARDNER — Throughout an up-and-down 2017 season, the Marquette Lady Crusaders were a volleyball team that looked downright mighty when things were clicking and struggled mightily when things weren't.
Tuesday night's season-ending, 25-14, 25-7 loss to the host Lady Panthers in the Gardner-South Wilmington Class 1A Regional semifinals was a microcosm of that.
Overpowered and outplayed by their regional hosts for the majority of the opening set, Marquette came out after the break between games seemingly recharged and raring to go. A Makena McConnaughhay kill off an Ashlyn Thomas assist ended the opening rally and put the Lady Cru ahead, and kills from Anna Sypniewski, Emily Owens and Ellie Eager followed as MA built advantages of 6-2 and then 7-5.
Things were clicking ... and then unclicked in a hurry.
A kill from Gardner-South Wilmington's Abby Beck gave the serve to teammate and fellow underclassman Carson Halpin down 7-6. Halpin stepped up and served 19 straight points — including eight aces — against the increasingly stunned and wide-eyed Lady Crusaders, ending the season for Marquette (12-12) and sending the Lady Panthers (17-10-1) on to Thursday's regional championship match against top-seeded Cissna Park (29-4).
"It snowballed quickly," Marquette coach Mindy McConnaughhay said. "It escalated quickly, and you could see the panic, and unfortunately for us it wasn't just one or two people off. It was pretty much everyone.
"It was definitely not, obviously, the way you'd want your season to end, but that's how it goes sometimes."
Gardner-South Wilmington was explosive all match, but never moreso than during Halpin's second-set stay at the service line as the hosts first tied the game, then took the lead in the game, then put the game and match away. In addition to Halpin's eight aces, the Lady Panthers received a pair of Kaylee Steichen kills and a Kaitlyn Kavanaugh stuff block during that stretch, with Steichen's six kills and setter Mady Asbridge's five second-hit shoot kills on the night leading the GSW attack.
It came suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, as Marquette — which scored the initial three points of the second set — appeared to be GSW's equal at the very least over the set's opening 15 rallies.
"Our serve-receive was a heck of a lot better during that stretch," said Coach McConnaughhay. "We were talking more, we were communicating, we were moving the ball well, and then we just kind of got stuck and it shut down, and that was that."
The Marquette offense and defense were both led by seniors — Makena McConnaughhay tallying six assists, a pair of kills and the Lady Cru's lone ace; Sypniewski putting home two kills; and libero Abbey Owens picking up a team-best nine digs — in their final match as Lady Crusaders.
"I kept telling my seniors, 'This season might not have been what we expected it to be,' and unfortunately for them, three years in the rebuilding process and they won't get to reap the benefits of it," Mindy McConnaughhay said. "But they came in — and all the girls did — day in and day out, they put in work, they gave their hearts to it. Hopefully the younger ones learned from these older girls what it means to be a good teammate and a good leader.
"Hopefully they can continue to build the program, and these seniors can look back in a couple years and see what they helped start."