Since the start of the current century, no boys or girls high school sports program in northwest Ohio can match the accomplishments of St. Ursula volleyball.
Beginning in 2000, when St. Ursula ended as Division I state runner-up with a 28-2 record, coach John Buck's Arrows have made eight trips to state tournaments. They won D-I championships in 2004 and 2010, and were also runners-up in 2005 and last season.
During this span, including this season's 24-1 start, the Three Rivers Athletic Conference champions have posted a 321-36 record (.899 winning percentage). When it defeated TRAC rival Notre Dame in five sets Saturday in the district final at Perrysburg, St. Ursula earned its 12th trip to regionals in 13 years.
The Arrows, ranked No. 2 in the Ohio Division I coaches poll, will next face seventh-ranked TRAC foe Findlay (22-3) in a regional semifinal at 6 p.m. Thursday at Bowling Green's Stroh Center.
"We only had four returning players this year, so basically it was like a brand-new team playing, and they were playing at a high level from day one," Buck said of his team simply reloading. "It's a little bit of everything. No matter how good your coaching staff is, you have to have quality athletes.
"A lot of it is tradition, and the work ethic is ingrained in these kids. You can't imagine how hard they work in practice. Every once in a while I've got to be the one pushing them to get results, but most of the time they push each other. I just have to steer it, I don't have to pull it."
When asked what is unique about this version of the Arrows compared to his past teams, Buck listed two key characteristics -- the team's combination of size at the net and quickness in the back row, and the players' ability to thrive in pressure situations late in games.
The Arrows have been led by the only two seniors on the roster -- third-year starter Maddie Burnham, a hard-swinging 6-foot-2 outside hitter who will play at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and second-year regular Katie McKernan, a dynamic 6-0 setter/hitter hybrid who will play at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
"The big thing was trying to make them feel comfortable, because I'm sure they were all kind of nervous to be on the varsity team," Burnham said of working with the new varsity players. "We had to make them feel involved, and that it was OK to make mistakes. They're young and still learning."
Added McKernan: "I'm really proud of all the girls. They've stepped up into their positions and played well. I'm not really surprised. I knew that they had it in them to play that well. It was just a matter of working hard in the gym and getting some experience under their belt in the first couple of games.
"Our communication sort of lacked at the beginning of the season, but now that's better, and we've picked up our energy -- whether it's blocking, passing, setting or hitting. We've picked it up at the right time."
The two seniors share captain duties with two sophomores who were the other varsity returnees -- 5-3 defensive specialist Maurissa Leonard, and 6-0 middle hitter Lauran Graves.
With Burnham, McKernan, Graves, 6-0 junior middle hitter Lauren Daudelin, 6-0 sophomore rightside hitter Morgan Finn, and 6-2 freshman middle hitter Elizabeth Coil, the Arrows feature six players at six feet or taller, giving them an imposing net presence on the block.
Burnham, the daughter of former University of Toledo men's basketball standout Blake Burnham, was an integral part of St. Ursula's 2010 state championship lineup on the attack.
She leads this year's team with 277 kills, followed by McKernan (214), Daudelin (119), and Graves (118). Graves tops the team in blocks with 120, followed by Daudelin (98).
St. Ursula size at the net, combined with the back-row quickness of Leonard, 5-5 junior setter/rightside hitter Madelyn McCabe, 5-6 sophomore DS Ryann Cox, and 5-6 sophomore DS Megan Burns, gives St. Ursula a fortress-like defensive alignment.
"We realize we're not as big as the hitters," Leonard said. "We just try to do our job. We go after every ball and try to be as big as them, but in a different way. The big people may not be as fast, so we try to make up for that aspect of the game."
Buck said that Leonard, with two years left to play, may already be the best player he's coached in the skill of digging balls and turning them into effective passes.
"I guess it's one of my natural instincts," Leonard said. "I look at the [opposing attacker] who's hitting a ball and, it's weird, but I feel like I can tell what they're going to do with the ball before they even know."
Leonard tops the Arrows in digs with 234, followed by Burns (144). McKernan is first in assists with 349, and McCabe is next at 294. On service, Burns is No. 1 in aces with 42, and McCabe has added 30.
"A lot of people who watch volleyball don't understand or don't look at the role of a setter or a defensive player," McCabe said. "But, in reality, it all starts with the defense. That's what makes it possible for the hitters to look good and do their best."
With the size and quickness elements visible to the naked eye, the team's other key attribute listed by Buck is more of an intangible quality, and it was first evident last summer.
"They played in big 20-team tournament with a lot of good teams," Buck said. "A few times they were down late in games, and every time they came back and won. They never dropped a set, and that was against quality opponents.
"They just have a never-say-die attitude, and they refuse to lose."
Added Burnham: "Every day in practice we do certain drills where we're down in, and we have to come back or we have to run. I think that helps. When it comes to late in games and we're down, we're not nervous. We know that we've done it before, and it's possible."
Added McKernan: "We try to pull ourselves together as much as possible. I'm sure there's a little panic, but we try to keep it as well put together as possible and keep a positive attitude."
Like St. Ursula, Findlay also reached the state semifinals last season. The Trojans fell 3-1 to Cincinnati Notre Dame, which then topped the Arrows 3-1 in the state championship match in Dayton.
In TRAC play, St. Ursula beat Findlay 3-0 and later won the conference tournament by beating Notre Dame in the final.
St. Ursula's only setback this season was a 26-28, 25-23, 25-23 loss to sixth-ranked Cincinnati Ursuline.
"We all had the same goal in mind, and we knew that we had to push each other in practice every day to get better," McCabe said. "We never give up. We fight for every point."
Contact Steve Junga at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 419-724-6461 or on Twitter@JungaBlade.