Assessing St. Ursula’s matchup in Thursday’s Division I state volleyball semifinals against Cincinnati Ursuline is a matter of perspective.
On one hand, Ursuline is part of Ohio volleyball’s undisputed hotbed — the Scarlet Division of Girls Greater Cincinnati League, a six-team group that has dominated big-school volleyball since the first state tournament was held in 1975.
Five of those six schools — Ursuline, Mount Notre Dame, Seton, Mother of Mercy, and St. Ursula — have won multiple state championships, combining for 27, including 20 in Division I. The GGCL has also produced 14 state runners-up in D-I in the first 37 years of the tournament.
On the other hand, Ursuline’s last final-four appearance came in 2009, while St. Ursula was the state champion in 2010 and was runner-up last season. Thus, the current rosters favor coach John Buck’s Arrows in terms of experience at Wright State University’s Nutter Center, the annual site of the Ohio volleyball championships.
So, whichever experience proves more valuable — the Cincinnati stronghold or the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately version — will show when second-ranked St. Ursula (26-1) faces sixth-ranked Ursuline (21-6) there in a 4 p.m. state semifinal match Thursday.
“They play a typical Cincinnati style of ball where they block well and defend well,” Buck said. “They’re just solid. They don’t have any weaknesses. You have to try to chip away at them. I think it’s going to really be a good match.”
This meeting will be a rematch from Sept. 15, when Ursuline handed the Arrows a 26-28, 25-23, 25-23 loss at the Vandalia Butler invitational.
“Last time, Sam Fry was [playing well] in their system and we just could not stop her,” Buck said. “So, the key for us is going to have to be to serve them well enough to keep her out of the system. She is really a nice volleyball player.
“Both teams have gotten better since them, so we’ll see who can execute better on the big stage with a lot riding on the game. That’s what it’ll come down to.”
The winner of this rematch advances to the 1 p.m. Division I state championship at the Nutter Center on Saturday against the winner of Thursday’s 6 p.m. semifinal between third-ranked Massillon Jackson (27-1) and unranked Chagrin Falls Kenston (20-7).
Ursuline is making its 12th trip to the final four. St. Ursula will play in its ninth, all since 2000 under Buck, who is 393-63 in 17 seasons coaching the Arrows. Jackson is a second-time qualifier, while Kenston is making its first trip.
The Arrows have just two seniors on their roster, plus two other sophomores who returned to the varsity roster from the 2011 runner-up squad.
Those four — seniors Maddie Burnham and Katie McKernan, and sophomores Maurissa Leonard and Lauran Graves — are the Arrows’ four captains. Only Burnham, who was recently named first-team All-Ohio, was a lineup regular on the 2010 championship team.
Burnham, a 6-foot-2 outside hitter, leads the Arrows in kills with 300, followed by McKernan, a 6-0 setter/hitter with 237. Graves, a 6-0 middle hitter, has 140 kills, and 6-0 junior middle hitter Lauren Daudelin has added 135.
McKernan is a second-team All-Ohio selection.
Graves leads in total blocks with 135, and Daudelin is next with 112.
McKernan is tops in assists at 422, and 5-5 junior Madelyn McCabe has contributed 282.
Defensively, the agile 5-3 Leonard leads the Arrows with 257 digs, followed by 5-6 sophomore defensive specialist Megan Burns with 133. Burns leads with 42 service aces, McKernan has 38, and Leonard has 37.
“We’re still tweaking our lineup to see what else we can get out of it,” Buck said.
Ursuline’s Lions have been led by the 6-2 Fry, an OH/middle blocker who has a team-high 362 kills and 107 total blocks, and was named first-team All-Ohio.
Senior tri-captain Courtney Grafton (libero, 413 digs, 28 aces), was named third-team All-Ohio.
St. Ursula’s first state championship team — the 29-0 squad from 2004 — was inducted into the City League Hall of Fame on Monday night. In addition to that team and the 2010 D-I champions, Buck’s Arrows were also state runners-up up in 2000, 2005 and last year.
“It’s quite an honor,” Buck said of St. Ursula’s ninth trip to state. “We’re getting close to double digits. It’s kind of neat to see the program continue to succeed, and keep getting down there.”