BOARDMAN - There weren't many surprises for Liberty and Canfield as they prepared for a Division II district semifinal showdown.
The two just met Oct. 13 in the last regular season match for both teams, so they knew what to expect from each other. And, really, everyone who plays Canfield knows what's coming: 6-foot-1 Sabrina Mangapora. It's stopping her that's the problem.
The senior outside hitter enjoyed another strong night on Tuesday at Boardman High School, leading the Cardinals past a scrappy Liberty team, 3-0. Canfield, the No. 2 seed, now plays Salem at 6 p.m. Thursday at Boardman.
Reaching this point meant beating the third-seeded Leopards, again (the first matchup went four games), and while the Cardinals (21-3) won in three games, this was a competitive match.
Liberty (19-6) came in winners of four straight, and Leopards coach Dave Sewell said his plan was to force Mangapora to earn her points and try and contain the rest of the Cardinals.
"I told the girls, 'She's going to get her kills. You do what you can, get a block on her, but she's going to get 10 kills a game. You have to accept it and move on and be ready for the next play. You have to be resilient enough to move on,' " he said. "And I thought we were, but it's just that she got a little more than I wanted her to get."
Mangapora, who's being recruited by Big Ten schools for both volleyball and basketball, finished with a game-high 13 kills. She was a big part of the Cardinals' Game 1 victory.
The contest was back and forth until Canfield went on a pair of four-point runs to go up 19-9. The Leopards rallied to move within six, but just when the momentum seemed to be shifting, Mangapora slammed one of her thunderous spikes, and the Cardinals went on to win, 25-17.
Liberty took its first lead of the night in Game 2, going up 5-4, and then again at 9-8, but Canfield came roaring back. A three-point spree was followed by a six-point run that put the Cardinals up, 18-11.
"Two balls dropped that shouldn't have dropped," he said. "We talk about that, and the seniors have been real good about that all year, but we had a couple lapses. And then we had four service errors, too. You can't miss a serve against a team like Canfield."
The Cardinals really started to find their rhythm as the game went on, and Liberty never threatened, losing 25-15. It was around this time that Canfield started to look more like a team on a 17-game winning streak (their last lost came Sept. 8 to Cuyahoga Heights).
"We're very a young team," said Mangapora, one of only two seniors for the Cardinals, "and I think part of it was that we came out with a lot of nerves because this was such a big game for us. And we were finally able to calm down and play how we normally play."
That seemed to be the case for both teams because the third game was a battle to the end.
Canfield came out hot, taking a 7-1 lead, and appeared ready to roll right past the Leopards, but Liberty slowly crept back into the game and closed within four at 16-12. Canfield responded with a three-point rally, bumping its lead to 19-12 and seemingly taking control of the match. But Liberty kept chipping away with runs of three and two, and suddenly the Leopards were down just 22-18. Canfield again answered and was a point away from ending things at 24-20, but a furious rally by Liberty tied the match at 24. The teams exchanged a spectacular volley, with players from both teams lunging and diving all over the floor to make wild saves, with the match tied at 24, and once again it was Mangapora who ended it with a violent spike to the back line. The following point was equally exciting, but it all came to an end when an errant return by the Leopards spun out of bounds to give Canfield a 26-24 victory.
The senior-laden Leopards finished a strong turnaround. Sewell said the program was on the verge of being ended four years ago, but a strong senior class of Mariah Willis, Elizabeth Svarny, Jenna Sewell, Jessica Charles and Amanda Seidler helped ignite its revival. In the last four years, Liberty's record has improved each season (2-19 in 2009, 6-14 in 2010, 13-8 last year and 19-6 this season).
"I've coached 68 different teams in basketball, baseball or football," Sewell said. "This was my 68th team, and it was one of my favorites. I looked at my team after the match, and 10 of them were crying. There's nothing wrong with that. That means it meant a lot to them. It was a good bunch of seniors. I hate to see them go."