THE BLADE/SEAN WORK Enlarge | Buy This Photo
Comparing teams from different seasons is something coaches would rather avoid.
Players' skills evolve as the years pass, the style of the game changes, and the competition level can rise and fall.
But there is one thing St. Ursula coach John Buck is certain about as he prepares to take his unbeaten, top-ranked, defending state champion volleyball team back to the Division I state tournament for the eighth time in 12 seasons.
He has never had a more experienced team headed to the Nutter Center at Wright State University in Dayton than this year's Arrows (27-0), who take a 47-match winning streak into their state semifinal against 13th-ranked Cuyahoga Falls Walsh Jesuit (20-7) at 2 p.m. Friday.
St. Ursula, which is ranked No. 11 in the PrepVolleyball.com Century Club national high school ratings, includes six seniors in its regular 10-player rotation. Five of those six have played regularly on the varsity for four seasons.
That quintet includes All-Ohio first-team selection Cassidy Croci and All-Ohio second-teamer Madison Strall, plus Erin Williams, Madison Haupricht and Emma Romstadt.
The sixth senior is Katie Felix, a member of the 2010 state-title team who is in her first season in the regular rotation.
"They've carried out a long tradition here of working hard in the gym and really going after it," Buck said. "There's going to be a void and things are going to be different next year. I haven't graduated that many [experienced] seniors before."
All six of the seniors were also members of the Toledo Volleyball Club's 14-1 (TVC's top age-14 squad) group that was runner-up in a national tournament as eighth-graders in the summer of 2008. That team was also coached by Buck.
THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge | Buy This Photo
"I think they know what to expect down there [at state], so I feel pretty confident about that," Buck said. "There's a few new players who are a part of this, but the core has been together for four years.
"When they were freshmen they took [eventual D-I state champion] Olmsted Falls to five games in the regionals, and almost knocked them off. It's kind of in their DNA. They know how to win."
The seniors are joined in the rotation by junior Maddie Burnham, who was an All-Ohio third-team selection, fellow junior Katie McKernan, and promising freshmen Lauran Graves and Maurissa Leonard.
St. Ursula has emerged as one of Ohio's elite volleyball programs and an almost perennial state-title contender with the best overall record among D-I teams during the past 12 seasons.
Since 2000, when the Arrows were state runners-up in their first final-four appearance, St. Ursula has posted a 296-34 record for a winning percentage of .897. Buck is 366-61 (.857) overall in his 16 seasons.
His 2004 team went 29-0 to win the D-I state championship, and his 28-1 team of 2005 was state runner-up. The 2001, 2002 and 2003 teams each lost in the state semifinals, and 11 of Buck's last 12 teams have reached the regionals. The 2007 squad lost in the district final.
All eight of St. Ursula's state tournament qualifiers have had their own identity in terms of style of play, with the teams of the early 2000s being more offensive oriented, and the teams since 2004 having more offensive-defensive balance.
Perhaps none of the prior seven, including last year's 28-1 champions, have had a more balanced offensive attack, or a more solid defensive presence.
"Defensively they're really strong," Buck said. "I watched a replay of our regional final, and I was just amazed. I just take for granted that my DS's [defensive specialists] are going to dig balls, and they dig some amazing shots by other teams.
"It has to be frustrating for other teams when they see that happening. It wears you down. You hit a shot that normally you're going to get a kill with, and we're digging it up to our setter to run our offense."
Leading the attack has been Burnham with 280 kills, followed by Croci (240), McKernan (145) and Graves (125).
"When it's over it's going to be sad because we've had such a great bond for all of those years," Croci said. "We'll still see each other and they'll probably be my bridesmaids at my wedding someday. But it's not going to be the same.
"Hopefully we can win it all and that will be the cherry on top of the cake. It would mean so much to win it with these girls. But I think we want to win for the people [on team] who don't have a state championship yet."
Croci leads in blocks with 214, followed by Graves (148), McKernan (104) and the versatile Strall (103), who also tops the Arrows in assists (433) and digs (148).
"We're really motivated because this is our last go-round," Strall said. "It's now or never, and we want to finish strong together. We started out five years ago together, and we want to end it with a boom.
It's nice to have one [state championship] under the belt, but we want another one."
THE BLADE Enlarge | Buy This Photo
Felix, who shares most of the setting duties with Strall, has contributed 278 assists and 125 digs. Other team dig leaders include Williams (132), Romstadt (131) and Haupricht (102).
"We know what we want and we're working for it," Haupricht said. "We know we have to give the effort to get that, and we're backing each other up and giving 110 percent.
"This team plays well together because we mesh together, not only as teammates but as friends."
St. Ursula's last loss came in its ninth match of the 2010 season, a 14-25, 25-22, 18-25 setback in a best-of-three-games weekend invitational match against then top-ranked Cincinnati Ursuline.
Ursuline, the 2009 D-I state champion, ran its string of consecutive wins to 56 last year before falling to Dublin Coffman in the state semifinals. Buck's Arrows then beat Coffman to win the 2010 championship.
The 2004-05 St. Ursula teams won 57 consecutive matches before falling in the 2005 state final to Cincinnati Seton.
This years' Arrows have been extended to five games in a match just one time, a 25-18, 23-25, 13-25, 25-17, 15-9 win over visiting Central Catholic in September. St. Ursula has gone to a fourth game in four other matches.
TRAC runner-up Findlay (22-5) will be making its first state semifinals appearance. The Trojans will face second-ranked Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame (22-5) at noon Friday at WSU.
St. Ursula beat visiting Walsh Jesuit 25-23, 25-20 in a best-of-three invitational match this year. The Arrows defeated Findlay twice (25-23, 25-18, 25-17 and 25-15, 25-17).
The state final will be at 3 p.m. Saturday. No D-I team has repeated as state champion since Mount Notre Dame won three in row (1998-2000).
"I think there's more pressure this year," Williams said. "We have to put last year in the past. People expect more out of us, and we expect more out of ourselves.
"The keys will be working together, not getting nervous, and just putting it all out there. We have nothing to lose. We need to work on all aspects of our game and just have fun."
"Having two wouldn't be bad," Burnham said. "There's almost more pressure because we're defending a state championship. We just want to win another one."
"The focus of this team has been one point at a time," Buck said. "That's all the further we're looking ahead. We want to refocus after every point, and they've been pretty good at doing that."
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com 419-724-6461, or on Twitter @JungaBlade.