If St. Ursula has the best Division I volleyball team in Ohio, as the state coaches poll indicates, then Clay may be the most improved squad.
The host Eagles gave top-ranked Arrows a bit of a scare early on before losing steam down the stretch Thursday night in a 3-1 loss to St. Ursula (14-0, 5-0) in a Three Rivers Athletic Conference match.
Clay (8-2, 3-2), with a chance to tie the Arrows for first place in the TRAC, was solid at the outset, spurred on by an enthusiastic home crowd.
The Eagles took Game 1 by a 25-20 count and had three chances to take a 2-0 advantage in games, leading 24-21 in Game 2.
Instead, St. Ursula staged a 5-0 rally to close that game, taking a 26-24 win to even the match, and ultimately deflating what had been growing momentum for Clay.
“There was no quit in that team or any letting down tonight,” Arrows coach John Buck said of Clay. “They played a good match, had a good game plan, and Dave Conley’s a good coach.
“They tested us. I’m proud of my girls for coming back. You’re going to have some scares along the way, and this was one of those.”
The Eagles, having let that golden opportunity slip away, did not immediately crumble. They held their last lead in the match 10-9 after the Arrows’ Emily Lydey served long.
But St. Ursula then used a decisive 10-1 run to take a commanding 19-11 lead and control of the match. Clay rallied briefly, but the Arrows won that third game 25-20, then rolled to a 25-12 victory in the match-clinching fourth game.
“You’ve got to learn from that,” said Conley, in his first year at Clay after guiding two of his Toledo Christian teams to the Division IV state semifinals. “It’s going to happen against real good teams.
“We’ve done it to a few teams this year, stealing a set at the end like that. That’s the biggest lesson tonight — learning how to bounce back if that does happen to you.”
Key in Clay’s early success was the setting of senior Jenna Fredritz, who found a rhythm with senior outside hitter Shalynn Garmon. Garmon had six of her match-high 17 kills in the first game, and five more in the second.
The Eagles, who had rallied behind the attacks of junior outside hitter Grace Winckowski down the stretch, took their 24-21 lead in Game 2 on Garmon’s 11th kill.
Winckowski had four of her eight total kills during a run that saw Clay climb from a 17-15 deficit to a 20-19 lead. But St. Ursula freshman Jamye Cox calmly served out her team’s final four points in the win.
“We needed to step up our serve a little bit and serve a little tougher,” Buck said of his team’s mid-match adjustment. “At that point, we weren’t hitting for a high percentage of efficiency.
“But we finally started getting into our motion and running our middles. The defense started getting the ball to where we could run our middles, and our middles did a very nice job.”
Arrows junior middle hitter Lauran Graves had the magic touch on serve in the key Game-3 run. Graves, who also shared the kills lead with senior middle hitter Lauren Daudelin (14 each), served the last six points during the pivotal 10-1 stretch.
“We’re going to have to go back and look at the film and see what happened during that run there,” Conley said. “We’ve got some weaknesses in serve-receive that probably hurt us there, and we’re spending time trying to get that fixed.”
Elizabeth Coil, St. Ursula’s 6-foot-3 sophomore middle hitter, added 11 kills to the Arrows’ balanced attack.
In Game 4, St. Ursula used a 15-2 run to grab a 20-7 lead, this time with senior setter Madelyn McCabe serving six straight points.