It might never be easy to defeat a defending state champion, but Highland’s volleyball team was able to find a way Thursday afternoon.
Competing in the Division II state semifinals at Wright State University’s Nutter Center, the Lady Scots claimed the first two sets against 2018 state champion Parma Heights Holy Name by scores of 25-23 and 28-26 to look well on their way to Saturday’s state championship match.
However, the Green Wave would battle back to knot the match at two sets apiece, winning the third set 25-20 and the fourth by a 25-13 margin.
Highland would regroup, though, and was able to take a 15-9 win in the fifth and deciding set to oust Parma Heights and advance to the Division II championship against Middletown Bishop Fenwick at 1 p.m. Saturday.
“We started back at 0-0,” said Highland coach Rob Terrill about his team’s mindset going into that decisive fifth set. “Get back to square one and get back to work. They took away what we like to do in the third and fourth sets. We were trying to thread the needle instead of playing strong and aggressive like we usually do.”
The teams traded points in that set until Highland got three straight from Raina Terry to break a 4-4 tie. One point from Kendall Stover and three from Abby Eusey, including a pair of aces, put the Scots up 13-6 and they were able to maintain that advantage.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Terry of making it to the state championship game. “I doesn’t even feel real yet. I think I felt more pressure for this game than anything in summer ball. I love these girls more than anything, so winning this is all I ever wanted to do.”
Another of the team’s seniors, Gena West, who played with Terry as freshmen on Highland’s state semifinalist team in Division III, was happy to advance past that round this time.
“We were sent home feeling hurt, but were able to finish this year,” she said. “We’re out to win a state championship. We know the community will be right behind us.”
To make it to the championship game, the Scots had to overcome a team that was evenly matched with them. While Highland held a 2-1 lead after the first three sets, all three were so tightly contested that any could have been won by either team.
Parma Heights got off to a fast start in the first game, taking a 5-1 lead; however, Highland go three points from Terry and two from Stover to jump in front 10-7. Two points from Makenna Belcher, one from Ashlynn Belcher, two from Darcie Walters and one from Terry boosted that advantage to a 21-14 score, but a defensive point followed by three from Samantha Snow brought the Green Wave within three.
Three more points from Lauren Whetstone temporarily tied things at 22, but Highland was able to recover and hold off their opponents to take a 1-0 edge.
Early in the second, it looked like Holy Name would be able to tie the match, as they jumped out to a 10-4 advantage. However, the Scots would gradually chip away at that lead until three points by Walters tied the set at 14. The Green Wave would rebuild a lead, getting four points from Whetstone to lead 23-17.
Highland would be strong down the stretch, though. After getting a point and regaining the serve, Makenna Belcher tallied five straight points to tie things back up. Needing to win by two, both teams would trade points until, leading 27-26, the Scots got a scoring serve from Terry to put Parma Heights one set away from elimination.
The Scots would gradually build a 13-9 lead in the third set, but after getting a defensive score, their opponents got five straight from Maddy Brubeck and three from Alyssa Krause to jump in front 19-15. One point by Terry and two from Stover tied things at 20, but Parma Heights would regain the lead and then get four straight from Whetstone to stay alive in the match.
The Green Wave then seemingly took all the momentum in the fourth, jumping out to a fast start and not letting up in controlling the action and winning 25-13.
After watching his team fall into early deficits in each of the first four sets, Terrill was happy to see his team score first in the fifth, as Makenna Belcher’s first serve resulted in a 1-0 Highland lead.
“Starting off in the fifth set and getting points early was huge,” he said, noting his team had a hard-fought five-set win in regionals. “This team is so talented. They went through it with John Glenn, having a tough five-set match.”
“Hold the rope,” said Terry. “Coach gave us all a piece of rope as a metaphor to pull each other through. It was pretty hard, but we really wanted this bad.”
Terry tallied 21 kills, three aces and 11 digs in the match. Makenna Belcher had 11 kills and 20 digs, while Stover added nine kills and 15 digs. Ashlynn Belcher finished with 47 assists and 17 digs, Walters had 23 digs and West contributed six kills and four blocks.
Now, the Scots have a chance to make history Saturday and win their first volleyball state title.
“I talked to the girls about the opportunity,” said Terrill. “We have one game to win a state championship. No regrets and hold the rope for each other.”
Rob Hamilton can be reached at 419-946-3010, ext. 1807. Connect with him on Twitter at @SportsMCS