St. Ursula may be entering the Division I state volleyball semifinals as the favored team, but 18th-year Arrows coach John Buck knows very well how a dynamic player can unravel what is thought to be a superior squad.
The top-ranked Arrows (28-0) will meet fourth-ranked Columbus St. Francis DeSales (26-1) at noon today at Wright State University’s Nutter Center in Fairborn, Ohio.
It is the 10th state final-four appearance for St. Ursula since 2000, a record unmatched by any other big-school program in the state. The Arrows won state titles in 2004 (29-0 record) and again in 2010 (28-1), and were runners-up three times (2000, 2005, 2011).
They are riding the most successful run in the program’s history — a 110-4 record over the last four seasons.
But awaiting them today is a Stallions team that features one of Ohio’s top attackers in high-jumping, 6-foot senior outside hitter Kenya Cason, who has committed to Connecticut.
Buck, whose current team is the best defensive group he’s ever put had on the court, knows that particular strength will have to be at an A-level versus DeSales and Cason.
“I don’t know a lot about them, but I do know they have an extremely good player,” Buck said. “They set her front row and back row. She probably gets the popcorn for them too.
“She’s an all-around good player and someone we’re going to have to know where she is at all times. We’ll have our work cut out. She’s got a real good vertical [leap], so she hit can over the top of a block.”
Buck only needs to recall 2009 — the last time St. Ursula failed to reach the state semifinals — for an example of how a great attacker can dominate a match.
That year at Norwalk, the Arrows lost 3-1 in a regional semifinal to Amherst Steele, which got 40 kills in the match from then junior All-Ohioan Deme Morales.
Few, if any, of the current Arrows may have seen that match, but they have their own recent example of being pushed to the brink by a strong attacking team.
In last week’s regional semifinal, St. Ursula survived for a 25-14, 17-25, 20-25, 25-11, 20-18 victory over Chagrin Falls Kenston, after being given a reprieve when down 15-14 in Game 5.
Kenston’s Emily Newell put down an apparent match-clinching kill, only to have it erased by a carrying call, which instead pulled the Arrows even at 15.
“Sometimes they go your way and sometimes they don’t,” Buck said of the call . “Whether that was the right call, I’m not going to speculate.
“But that didn’t win the match for us. It just brought us back to even. We had to win another five points. They had to survive. They learned a little about themselves. They were pushed to the brink, and they pulled it out.”
The Arrows then advanced to state with a 3-1 win the regional final against Strongsville.
St. Ursula is led on the attack by junior middle hitter Lauran Graves, with good balance provided by senior MH Lauren Daudelin, sophomore MH Elizabeth Coil, junior right-side hitter Morgan Finn, and sophomore OH Morgan Rectenwald.
The most productive all-around contributor in the Arrows’ 10-player rotation is sophomore setter/outside hitter Emily Lydey, who is second in assists, and also an effective attacker, server, and defensive player.
The backbone of the team, however, is the play away from the net supplied by the smaller members of the rotation — 5-5 senior setter Madelyn McCabe, 5-3 junior libero Maurissa Leonard, and the junior-freshman sister team of defensive specialist, 5-6 Ryann Cox and 5-3 Jayme Cox, respectively.
“With the schedule we play, going in I thought we could lose eight games or go undefeated,” Buck said. “It would be up to them to prove what they could do."
In addition to Cason, the Stallions have gotten strong contributions from sophomore setter Julia Brown, senior outside hitter Kendall Witt, junior middle blockers Emily Durbin and Katie Evans, and sophomore DS Doni Guanciale.
The winner advances to Saturday’s 11 a.m. final against the winner the semifinal between second-ranked and defending champion Cincinnati Ursuline and unranked Hudson.