(Editor’s note: This is the next in a series in which the Times Herald and Bradford Era will be presenting the best season/team accomplishment for every school in the Big 30. The staffs at both papers made a singular selection for each school in conjunction with current and former coaches and athletic directors. Today: Houghton.)
HOUGHTON — In the mid-90s, girls sports at Houghton Academy were enjoying success.
The 1995 girls volleyball team reached the state semifinals. Months later, the 1995-96 girls basketball team (composed of mostly the same group of players and coach) reached the state semifinals and won the NYS Sportsmanship Award. When the girls returned to campus to begin the volleyball season in 1996, they took it to the next level, winning the New York State Class D championship played at the University at Buffalo.
“I would group the two seasons (1995 and 1996) together,” then-coach Phil Merrill said. “In 1995, we were undefeated up to the semifinals (19-0) where we lost a tough match to North Salem (which would win the state title). That made the girls hungrier, it made me hungrier. All the next year we were just playing for that championship game. It was a really good group of female athletes at the school at that time.”
That information all came from current Houghton Academy athletic coordinator Jeff Prentice, certainly proud of the school’s lone team to win a New York State title. The Panthers finished that season 19-0 in dual matches but did have a tough time in the Horseheads Tournament, in which it finished with an 8-6 mark and lost in the semifinal to Horseheads, just before playoffs. But a tournament like that prepared Houghton for its state title run.
“That was the highlight of the year for me,” Merrill said. “We were by far the smallest school, and we made it all the way to the semifinals of that tournament. Nobody had ever heard of us, and here we are competing against the biggest schools in the state and doing very well. That was very successful for us.”
OUTSIDE OF that tournament the Panthers seemingly breezed through their regular season matches, routinely winning in three sets by wide margins. Matches were played to 15 back then, not the 25 it is today. Nowadays rally scoring is in place, so a point is scored by one team on every serve. Back then you only scored a point if you were the serving team (the receiving team would win the serve back otherwise).
Houghton swept the Allegany County Tournament (10-0 in pool play, wins in both the semifinals and finals) during the season. It then topped Fillmore, Batavia Notre Dame and Gananda (which won the state title in 1997) in the Section 5 Class D Tournament to reach the state final four alongside Dobbs Ferry (Section 1), Argyle (Section 2) and Ripley (Section 6). In the pool play round, the Panthers finished 5-1, dropping a 15-8 set against Dobbs Ferry but winning the last five sets of the day to advance to the finals against Ripley. In the championship Ripley took the first set 15-4, but Houghton ripped off three straight wins 15-12, 15-7, 15-2 to claim the Class D championship.
“We knew we could win a championship,” Merrill said. “I don’t want to say we were arrogant but we just knew that we were going to win and we approached every game like that. We were very confident and knew the state title was ours for the taking. After losing badly in the first game of the state championship match versus Ripley, the girls came off the floor joking and laughing. The head of Section 5 Volleyball, Marty Martin, asked me about it after the game and asked how I kept the girls so loose. I simply said, ‘Because they knew they were that good.’ Some might call it cockiness but it was rather a belief that all the hard work they had put into it was going to pay off in a state championship. Losing to the eventual champion in 1995 in the semifinals was the best thing to happen to the 1996 team since it made them very hungry. As a result, they dominated the whole season.”
MERRILL, WHO also served as the school’s athletic director, coached multiple sports in his time at Houghton: baseball, volleyball and both boys and girls basketball. He won sectional titles in all of them and was named the Olean Times Herald Boys’ Coach of the Year after the 2010-11 season in which the Panthers won the Section 5 Class DD title. In a span of five months in 1995 and 1996, his girls volleyball and basketball teams both reached the state final four, while the volleyball team also went to states in 1998 and 1999.
That 1996 volleyball season Merrill led a group of players who shared bonds on and off the court: Heidi Bressler, Kristin Gurley (74 kills, 37 aces), Linda Shea (111 kills, 69 aces), Meg Stockin (177 assists), Mary Blew, Jennie DeVries, Hannah Ordiway, Anna Sorensen (148 assists), May Inoue, Bitsy Mayhle (117 kills, 68 blocks) and Sarah Swanson (96 percent server, 46 aces). Shea was named First-Team All-State; Mayhle and Gurley were both Third-Team.
“We were a power hitting team built around three different types of hitters,” Merrill said. “Linda Shea was a very consistent hitter who looked for spots to hit it to. Bitsy Mayhle was a ball-crushing hitter who struck fear in opponents with her power. Kristen Gurley was an active hitter who was very athletic around the net and played like she was playing for the survival of humanity.
“The other cast members were three very good passers, servers, setters and defenders – Meg Stockin, Anna Sorensen and Sarah Swanson. Heidi Bressler was a key member of that team as well and did little things on and off the court that are seldom acknowledged but very crucial. Our goal was to be very offensive and make every hit back over the net to be aggressive. I saw Kelly Unverdorben’s (state champion) Portville team in 2018 and have often wondered how a match of my 1996 team versus them would go. Very different in style but both very good teams. Finesse versus power.”
SHEA was one of the senior standouts on that team.
“The key in all of this was strong friendships that started in elementary school (for many of us), lots of hardwork in the offseason training privately with various coaches and parents as well as attending various volleyball summer camps,” Shea said. “Bitsy Mayhle went on to play Division I volleyball for the University of Toledo. Four of us went on to play for Houghton College’s volleyball team. I have to add that Coach Merrill really poured into the team as well and created an atmosphere of success.
Houghton College’s volleyball teams in the late 1990s were a powerhouse, routinely winning more than 20 matches in a season. They were twice Northern Athletic Conference champions and advanced on to the NAIA National Tournament multiple times.
“I think this was a group of exceptional women (including seniors Lynda Jones and Krista Newell, who graduated in 1995 but were a part of the first two state appearances) who simply put time into developing their gifts and who used their platform to bring about some good in the world,” Shea said. “I think we felt like it was an opportunity to be given a platform such as this and we tried our best to live in a manner that was honoring to our families, our school, our community and to God. It was a real privilege and one of the major highlights of my life to be a part of that team.”