FAIRBORN, Ohio — St. Ursula's quest for a second Division I state volleyball championship in three years came to halt Thursday, as Cincinnati Ursuline tightened up its blocking game, rallied from a 20-12 deficit to win the Game 1, and went on to a 27-25, 20-25, 25-20, 25-17 victory in a state semifinal match played at Wright State University's Nutter Center.
The second-ranked Arrows (26-2) appeared poised to take a 1-0 lead in the first game before the sixth-ranked Lions (22-6) called a timeout.
They responded with a pivotal surge of points off the block to change momentum. During that key run, the Lions' 5-foot-11 sophomore middle hitter Katherine Edmondson scored four times on blocks of St. Ursula senior Katie McKernan.
“We felt confident coming into this weekend,” 17th-year Arrows head coach John Buck said. “The girls were playing well and we thought we had a good game plan. I was looking forward to the rematch.
“One the big differences in this match was that [Ursuline] blocked extremely well. We were pretty predictable in our offense, and they had time to camp out on their blocks. They did a real nice job with that.”
The Lions topped the Arrows 17-9 in block points in the match, an edge most crucial in deciding the match.
The Arrows, who won the D-I crown in 2010 and finished as state runners-up last year, still had a chance to close out that game up 24-23. But freshman Emily Lydey served into the net, and Ursuline used the reprieve to continue their surge, ultimately ending the game on a kill from Paige Kebe.
“We knew it was going to be tough,” Lions coach Jeni Case said. “We had to stop their hitters. We had to touch balls when they hit, and we did that.
“In the beginning I wasn’t so sure. But, by the middle of the first game, we started blocking. Confidence-wise, that helped the girls.”
St. Ursula bounced back from that early disappointment by taking Game 2, but then quickly fell behind 5-0 in Game 3 and never led in that game.
The Arrows' only lead in the deciding fourth game was at 1-0, as the Lions gained control early with a 6-2 start. St. Ursula never got closer than three points from there.
Both of the Arrows' losses this season came against the Lions, who defeated St. Ursula 26-28, 25-23, 25-23 in a Sept. 15 three-gamer during the regular season.
“We were just a little off at that time,” Buck said of Ursuline’s Game 1 rally. “I felt bad for these girls [seniors Maddie Burnham and McKernan], because they were trying their hearts out [attacking] there. We let that one slip away, but we regrouped.”
Burnham and McKernan, the team’s only seniors, led the Arrows in kills with 17 and 16, respectively. Sophomore Lauran Graves had seven kils and junior Lauren Daudelin added six for St. Ursula.
“The girls played great but we just didn’t pull together as much this time to beat them,” said Burnham, the only Arrow in the lineup all three years at state. “I’m really proud of the way our girls played the whole season.
“They made such great strides and improved so much. They’ll get ’em next year. It’s not the way I wanted to go out, but it was good coming down here three times. I wish we could’ve have gotten more.”
McKernan also had 25 assists and 15 digs, sophomore Maurissa Leonard led the Arrows in digs with 18, and classmate Ryann Cox added 14. Junior Madelyn McCabe contributed 16 assists.
“They keyed on the outside hitters and we were getting really predictable on where we were setting the ball,” McKernan said. “[The Lions] did a real good job of covering their blocks when we tried to block them. We needed a little extra, and we didn’t have it today I guess.”
The Lions were led on the attack by 6-2 junior Sam Fry with 19 kills. Kebe added 13 for Ursuline, while Lauren Wilkins and Rachel Garnett added nine apiece.
Abby Weissenburger led Ursuline with 41 assists, and Courtney Grafton paced the Lions with 27 digs.
“Fry is obviously a quality player,” Buck said. “I don’t think she was as dominating against us this time as she was last time. I felt they were much more balanced this time. They spread the ball out more this time.”
The Arrows bounced back to top the Lions in Game 2, closing that win out on Graves’ kill on a jump ball at the net.
After streaking to their 5-0 lead in Game 3, the Lions were more consistently in control over the final two games to earn a spot in Saturday’s 1 p.m. championship match.
The Lions are bidding for their fourth state title, having previously won in 1993, 2002, and 2009.
St. Ursula, making its ninth appearance in the final four, won state titles in 2004 and 2010, as was runner-up in 2000, 2005 and last year. The Arrows are 82-4 the past three seasons, with all four losses coming against Cincinnati teams, two in final-four contests.
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com, 419-724-6461 or on Twitter@JungaBlade.