Having taken St. Ursula teams to the state volleyball tournament in six straight seasons (2000-05), veteran coach John Buck recognizes the type of talent and team composition it takes to get to the final four in Dayton.
Buck's 2008 version of the Arrows — a roster that included six freshmen and just one senior — may not have appeared to many to have the right formula to make a big tournament run. Especially after closing the regular season with a 12-10 record.
Included in that mark were humbling City League losses to Notre Dame and Central Catholic, both in three games. Then came another three-game sweep at the hands of eventual repeat City champion Notre Dame in the league's playoff semifinals.
Not exactly the desired warmup for tournament success.
But a funny thing happened between that 25-20, 25-23, 25-20 CL playoff loss and St. Ursula's third meeting with Notre Dame in the Division I district final.
The young Arrows suddenly grew up.
SUA toppled 10th-ranked Southview in the district semifinals 20-25, 25-18, 25-16, 18-25, 15-13.
Then came a startling 25-15, 27-25, 20-25, 25-11 upset of defending district champion Notre Dame at Perrysburg.
Proving it was no fluke, the Arrows then nearly pulled off the upset of the year in Ohio tourney play.
St. Ursula bolted to a 2-0 lead in games in the D-I regional semifinals against unbeaten and second-ranked Olmsted Falls before ultimately falling short 18-25, 21-25, 25-14, 25-20, 15-11. This near upset loomed larger a week later when Olmsted Falls (29-0) beat top-ranked and previously unbeaten Cincinnati Ursuline (28-1) in the D-I state final.
With lone senior Maggie Naayers showing court leadership, underclassmen players Maggie Burnham, Veronica Zimmerman, Erin Williams, Marissa Tashenberg, Cassidy Croci, Kelsey Reiner, Molly Pfohl, Emma Romstadt, Madison Strall and Madison Haupricht blossomed in the nick of time.
“It was continued improvement,” Buck said. “I guess the rest of the area didn't get to see what we were seeing in practice very day. We were seeing progress in the gym, but it wasn't quite carrying over into the matches.
“A little bit of that was confidence and adjusting to the speed of the game. Once they started finding themselves there really was no stopping them. They were on a mission, and they really played well.”
Fast forward to the 2009 season, SUA and its 11 varsity returnees have a new perspective.
“I didn't think a lot of people expected us to do what we did last year,” Buck said, “but I don't think anybody is going to be surprised this year.
“There's two ways to prepare — as the underdog or as the favorite. The bottom line is, you've got to take care of your side of the net. If you do, then good things should happen.”
SU opened the season with easy 3-0 CL wins over Rogers and Bowsher, and last Saturday recorded three wins to place first in the Best of Ohio invitational. The host Arrows dispatched Anthony Wayne 25-12, 25-19 and Elyria 25-11, 25-23, then topped defending state champion Olmsted Falls 25-16, 25-18 in the title match.
Tashenberg, a 6-0 rightside hitter who was named second-team All-City in 2008, and Pfohl a 5-9 defensive specialist/libero, are the new senior leaders.
Hannah Romstadt and Libby Dachenhaus complete the senior group.
“It was just our attitude,” said Pfohl, whose sister Amy was a first-team All-Ohio outside hitter for the Arrows in 1998. “I think we knew that we had it, we just didn't know how to make it click. Finally, we just started clicking at the right time.
“That [regional loss to Olmsted Falls] was kind of bittersweet. You hate to lose but, when you look back, we had the state champs right where we wanted them. I think that just fueled us for this year.
“We try not to think too far ahead, but our goal is definitely to go to state and win it.”
Juniors Burnham and Zimmerman, each All-City first team a year ago, recall the last year's rise just before tourney play.
“We played a match against [Rocky River] Magnificat, and that was when we really began to turn it around, play with a lot more intensity and realize that we could play up to a high potential,” said Burnham, a 6-2 middle hitter and the daughter of former University ofToledo basketball standout Blake Burnham. “We were down two games to nothing and we just really started focusing. We were determined we weren't going to lose that match.
“I think we surprised a lot of people with what we accomplished [in tournament], but we expected a lot from ourselves. Once we realized to play to that higher potential we were able to play there for a longer amount of time. When we played with confidence we played a lot higher caliber of volleyball, and things just really started clicking.”
Zimmerman, the Arrows' versatile 5-8 setter, agreed on the turning point.
“We really got our confidence together and started meshing together as a team,” Zimmerman said of the 16-25, 22-25, 25-14, 26-24, 15-9 win over Magnificat following the CL playoffs. “We needed something to get under our belt to show us that we could win. With us being so young we weren't really sure about everyone's talents yet.
“Once we figured out we had the talent, we came together. When we did win, that confidence just went through the roof. We thought we could beat anyone, and we wanted to work hard and be the best.”
A third junior is DS Isabelle Lishewski.
And then there are St. Ursula's six sophomores,” an accomplished group that includes Williams (5-10, OH), Croci (5-11 , middle hitter), Reiner (5-9 , OH), Emma Romstadt (5-7, DS), Strall (5-9 , DS/setter) and Haupricht (5-5, DS).
Before they reached high school, these six sophomores, plus two current Arrow junior varsity players, were part of the 10-player Toledo Volleyball Club 14-1 team Buck coached to a national runner-up finish in Dallas in 2007.
“Until they play against 17 and 18-year-olds, you never know how they're going to respond to that,” Buck said. “Playing against 14-year-olds and 18-year-olds is a big difference. It came down to them seeing it and believing it. It took them time to grasp it.
“We were showing flashes of brilliance as a team all year long, but we just couldn't sustain it for a whole game or a whole match. We were good until 20. It was that last five points where we were stumbling.”
Off to a 6-0 start after last night's CL match against Waite, St. Ursula has its 14th-year coach on the brink of a milestone. Buck's record with the Arrows stands at 295-57 (.838). Career win No. 300 could come as early as Sept. 21 at home against Whitmer.
Buck guided the Arrows to a perfect 29-0 state championship season in 2004, and to state runner-up finishes in 2000 (28-2) and 2005 (28-1). The other three state appearances came in 2001 (27-1), 2002 (25-3) and 2003 (26-2), giving SUA an incredible six-year mark of 163-9 (.953) during that run. The 2004-05 teams also produced a D-I state-record 57-match winning streak.
Contact Steve Junga at:email@example.com 419-724-6461.