Top-ranked St. Ursula Academy earned its sixth straight trip to the Division I state volleyball semifinals by pounding No. 2 Elyria in the regional final last Saturday, setting up another showdown tonight.
The Arrows (27-0) enter a state semifinal match tonight against Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame (21-3) at the Nutter Center in Dayton riding a 56-match winning streak, the longest such string in Ohio D-I volleyball history.
That is an impressive number, but the program's true turning point came midway in the streak when Arrows finally stopped their losses at the state tournament last year. The Arrows had lost their four previous matches at state (the 2000 title match and the semifinals in the next three years). But last season they won it all, ending Cincinnati's run of six straight championship teams.
Those D-I state titles were won by three different schools from the highly-regarded Girls Greater Cincinnati League, including three in a row (1998-2000) by the Mount Notre Dame Cougars.
Pivotal was the Arrows' comeback from an 0-2 deficit in games and a 23-19 margin down the stretch in Game 3 of their 2004 state semifinal against Cincinnati Seton.
SUA outlasted the Saints in a thrilling 39-37 marathon in third game, rallied from another 23-19 gap in the fourth, and then advanced by taking the fifth game. The Arrows then beat Cincinnati Mother of Mercy in three games to win Toledo's first state volleyball championship.
"That was a huge hurdle," Buck said. "That was last year's team, but I'd like to think that at least it won't be as intimidating playing down there against a great Cincinnati team.
"It's going to be two great teams going at it. They're the top-seeded team from Cincinnati, so automatically they're going to gain respect from everybody in the state. The key for us will be playing relaxed. That's our philosophy."
The Cougars are led by first-team All-Ohioan Malorie Wessel, a senior outside hitter, and Alexis Lonneman, a senior libero who earned All-Ohio honorable mention.
Buck credits an intangible factor as having helped his team reach state appearance No. 6. It is the resiliency the Arrows have developed surviving several close calls during their winning streak, including tight-roping their way through two thrilling, down-to-the-wire, five-game wins over seventh-ranked Central Catholic.
"I think it makes it a little tougher for other teams to really think they've put us away," Buck said. "We don't shy away from any situation. We attack it. We continue to play our aggressive style no matter what the score is."
Buck admits he learned a valuable lesson from the powerhouse Cincinnati teams about the importance of defense, a point driven home when his top-ranked, 27-0 Arrows of 2001 were defeated 15-9, 15-11 by Ursuline Academy in a 49-minute semifinal match under the old serve-to-score, best two-of-three format.
"It's pretty tough on hitters when they really crush a ball on an attack and the other team digs it right up to the setter and they crush one back at you," Buck said. "We learned that back in 2001, which was the best attacking team we've ever had. Now, we have an understanding of defense.
"We owe a lot of that improvement to Marlene Metti, our assistant coach. She puts a strong emphasis on defense, and she's a real stickler. But the kids are willing to do the reps over and over until they get it right."
Another key factor is depth.
"A big part of what we've done can be attributed to the kids who don't play a lot in matches, but who help us prepare in practice," Buck said. "They train just as hard and they don't get the recognition."
Four St. Ursula seniors will be closing their prep careers this weekend, including twin sisters Allison and Emily Florian, who each received first-team All-Ohio honors earlier this week. Allison, a right-side hitter, has been in the varsity lineup all four years, Emily, a setter, the last three.
The others are defensive specialist Tighe Westrick, who often plays the Arrows' libero position, and Katelyn Schissler, a middle hitter.
Both played on last year's title team, and neither is likely to play at the college level, other than on club teams. Tonight or Saturday will be their final matches of careers that began at the fifth-grade level.
"Really, it's sad," Westrick said. "I've learned a ton from playing volleyball, not only about volleyball but about teamwork and communication and managing your time. Being a part of that state championship team last year was a really big honor. It kind of summed up all the hard work we put in. We learned a lot about teamwork and chemistry and we tried to carry that over to this year."
Schissler echoes her senior teammate.
"Winning state was a good experience," she said. "You work so hard and you want to accomplish as much as you can. It's an amazing experience."
Contact Steve Junga at:
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