FAIRBORN – The Versailles volleyball team is one win away from repeating as the Division III state champions.
The Tigers handled Zoarville Tuscarawas Valley in straight sets on Thursday in a semifinals match at Wright State University’s Nutter Center. Versailles won 25-6, 25-21, 25-18 to advance to a 1 p.m. state finals match against Independence, which defeated Defiance Tinora 3-0 in the other D-III state semifinal.
“I thought it was very consistent and I think our blocking was huge in that game,” Versailles coach Kenzie Bruggeman said. “When we don’t miss serves and, in a sense, shoot ourselves in the foot we are a very different team. We recognized that this past Saturday (versus Marion Pleasant) so that was our focus all week. We have to be consistent. Let’s find our consistent toss and figure out how can we keep the ball in bounds when we serve. That was our focus and I thought it was well executed tonight.”
Some of that “huge” blocking Bruggeman referred to came from junior Brooke Stonebraker, who saw more playing time due to another player being injured.
“Brooke was huge tonight,” Bruggeman said. “She had some amazing blocks tonight. She has just been such an amazing player all season. We have put here in so many situations. We had her on the outside and then we had her on the right side. This week we were like ‘Hey, you’re going to try middle,’ and she doesn’t get nervous about it. She is so coachable and knows this is what she has got to do. Brooke, Katelyn Marshal and Emma George – we had those three rotating in the middle all week and I think across the board we were prepared for tonight as a whole entire team.”
In the first set, the Tigers (19-10) executed plenty when junior Lindsey Winner stepped to the serve with her team up 6-3. She rolled off 10 straight points to get the Tigers out to a huge 15-3 advantage.
“We rely a lot on serving in chunks like that,” Winner said. “So whenever we have that it’s like let’s go. We have to keep pushing and keep working.”
Winner totaled 12 kills in the match, as did senior Elizabeth Ording.
“So many girls stepped up,” Winner said. “Everyone knew what their job was and what we had to do to keep the ball on the court.”
“I thought everyone was calm tonight too,” Ording said. “I didn’t sense jitters in anybody. We just came out and knew what we wanted. We got our job done and we are moving on.
“It’s awesome (to be going to the state finals again) especially being a senior,” she continued. “I never thought at the beginning of the season we’d be back here at all, but the fact that we overcame ourselves and the doubt we had it shows so much growth that we made. With all the tough times we had in the season, we knew that it would someday pay off and I think it is paying off right now.”
The second set was a little tighter contest. Tuscarawas Valley (25-3) settled down after the lopsided first set and played a lot better getting out to leads of 9-6 and then 12-11 before Versailles took control of the game. The Trojans broke a 6-6 tie to go up 7-6 and then 8-6 and 9-6 before the Tigers came back to tie it at 11-11. Tuscarawas Valley went up 12-11 and then it was tied 12-12 on a kill by Winner. Another kill by Winner put Versailles ahead 13-12 but the Trojans got the next point to tie it at 13-13. Winner came through again for the Tigers to go up 14-13, but the Trojans tied it one last time at 14-14 before Versailles ran out to the 25-21 victory. The winning point came on an ace by sophomore Abby Stammen.
The third set was a bit back and forth as well with Tuscarawas Valley taking the lead at 8-7 and holding onto it until Versailles tied it at 12-12. The Tigers won the next point to go up 13-12 and Ording took the serve running her team to a 17-13 lead. Versailles would not look back from that point in earning a trip to Saturday’s championship match.
“It is an awesome feeling having this team go back to another state final,” Bruggeman said. “It is so much fun. We have grown so much as a team looking back at where we started with all the ups and downs we have had all season, and for them believing in what we we’re trying to do as a coaching staff.
“Yes, we were having the losses,” she continued. “I don’t even know what our losing streak was at one point, you just try to forget it. We just kept focusing on that it’s not about the wins and losses. We have to look at our own progress as a team and if we do that and keep working little by little we’ll get to where we need to be, so it is fun to actually see that come into play now and for them to experience it.”
While the Tigers will be going for their second consecutive state title on Saturday, and third overall, Thursday was the fourth straight year for Tuscarawas Valley to play in the state semifinals. The Trojans lost to Versailles in a state semifinal match last season, 3-1.
“This my first year back at Tuscarawas Valley and I was working with several underclassmen,” TVHS coach Marianne Humphrey said. “At one time we had two sophomores and two freshmen on the court with two seniors. That being said, Versailles has several seniors – they had several seniors last year – and they are coming in here with a lot more experience as far as this level of play.
“This is quite overwhelming for freshmen and sophomores to come into a venue like this,” she continued. “We tried to regroup after the first set, but again coming in here with several freshmen and several sophomores we had to settle them down because that’s not the way we played all season. Our stats are not what they usually are during the regular season. Versailles played very well, but you can’t win when you have your hitters hitting in the negative.”
Humphrey praised her two seniors – Jadyn Kuykendall and Sage Peters – for their season-long leadership.
“Last year we had a lot of seniors that graduated,” Humphrey said. “Nobody thought we’d be back here, so just being here for them was truly a big step. They were amazing leaders from day one and that is why our motto all year was ‘Don’t count us out,’ because everyone around us counted us out. I just want to say to my seniors I love you both.”
Peters led the Trojans with 11 kills and 6 digs. Kuykendall had 4 kills and 1 block.
For Versailles, besides Winner and Ording leading the offense with 12 kills apiece, Kelsey Custenborder had 29 assists and 6 digs, Caitlin McEldowney had 9 digs, Stammen had 6 digs and 2 aces, Alexa Didier had 4 aces and 5 digs, Raegen Shaffer had 4 kills and Stonebraker had 2 kills. Shaffer and Stonebraker also had 7 block assists each.
“It is not about the wins and losses,” Bruggeman said. “Yes, this is hard, and yes, we have struggled, but we are learning a lot about ourselves. We have four seniors, but at times on the court it is a majority of underclassmen. I will attest to the seniors last year for setting such a good role model. They really exemplified last year what leadership looked like and how to keep everybody calm and now you are seeing that we have people step up and take on those leadership roles that aren’t seniors.
“Liz and Kelsey do an amazing job and Alexa Didier does an amazing job,” she continued. “But we are having Abby Stammen, who is a sophomore, coming on the floor and bringing a lot of energy and taking on that role and taking it seriously. We have Rebecca Knapke, her first year on varsity, getting great playing time in the back court, so I think it just attests to their mentality just as much as their athleticism and trusting and knowing that we are not done yet. We still have more to prove and more areas to grow in.”
The Independence Blue Devils are now 25-3 on the season coming out of the Chagrin Valley Conference. This is their second straight year competing in the state tournament. They lost to Coldwater last year in the state semifinals. Versailles is in the state tournament for the seventh time overall. The Tigers have two state championships in 2013 and 2017.