By Josh Brown
FAIRBORN — Trailing 20-11 in a tied match, the Miami East volleyball team began to claw its way back.
Up 18-15 but down in the match 2-1, the Vikings simply didn’t have the energy left to keep climbing.
“That’s something we struggle with. We’ll dig ourselves a hole at the beginning of games, and at times it’s just dug too deep to get all the way back,” Miami East senior libero Lindsey Black said.
And a team like Gilmour Academy knows how to make the climb back even tougher.
The Lancers — the third-ranked team in the state — bounced back after Miami East won a back-and-forth first set, making clutch plays late to win the second, dominating the early part of the third and holding on late and then rallying from a fourth-set deficit to win the Division III state semifinal 26-28, 25-20, 25-22, 25-21 and advance to their third straight state title game Thursday at Wright State’s Nutter Center.
Miami East — which was ranked No. 17 in the final state poll, making the team the biggest underdog left in the final four — finished the season at 23-5. But the Vikings lost the way they played all season — fighting and swinging.
“We understand we’re going to make mistakes, but we’re going to attack,” Miami East coach Brian Bensman said. “That’s the way the girls like to play. We know there’s both good and bad with that, but that’s our game. That’s how we’re going to play. We were right there, where a play or two was going to make the difference.”
“After we won the first game, we had the momentum to keep playing, but I’m not sure what happened from there,” sophomore middle Kyndall Hellyer said. “Some of us may have gotten ahead of ourselves a little bit, and that’s when we started making our errors and breaking down.”
The first set showed that the Vikings weren’t going to back down from the Lancers (25-3).
Miami East forced the first timeout of the game as Carly Gump served two straight points to give the Vikings a 9-7 lead. Back-to-back vicious kills by sophomore Jonni Parker extended that lead to three at 11-8, and the Vikings held that edge at 16-13 before a kill by Gilmour’s Alexa Turk, an ace by Maria Snelling and an East error on a miscommunication tied the score and force the Vikings to call timeout.
The lead grew back to 20-17, but the Lancers ran off five straight points on Turk’s serve, with back-to-back kills by Ella Grbac giving Gilmour a 22-20 lead. Parker put down a pair of kills to tie the score and the teams traded points the rest of the way, with the Vikings fighting off two set points before a Gilmour service error tied the score at 26-26. Gump served the final two points to give East Game 1, 28-26.
“A big thing we’ve struggled with all year is keeping our momentum going throughout the match,” Parker said. “We struggle with not being so up and down. We were all over the place today.”
In the second game, though, Gilmour began to take charge.
Six different players had kills, with Turk leading the way with three kills and two aces, in the set, giving the Lancers a 17-12 lead. A three-point service run by Black got the Vikings back to within one, but the Lancers rebuilt a 22-19 lead. A kill by Kati Runner gave the Vikings one last breath, but a error, a block by Grbac and an ace by Julia Brzozowski put an end to the set and evened the match 1-1.
“Miami East did a very good job of passing our serve early on, but we weren’t going to change what we were doing,” Gilmour coach Danny Coughlin said. “We’ve been aggressive all year, and I just told the girls to keep swinging. I did notice that only two girls were getting set in that first game, and our strength has always been how many girls we can go to. I just told the girls we needed to do what we’ve been doing all year long.”
The Lancers took advantage of four straight errors early in Game 3 as an ace by Kenzie O’Connor capped off a five-point run that made it 13-7 Gilmour. The Lancers built a lead as big as 20-11 — but the Vikings began to fight back.
“When we realized how far we were down, we knew we just needed to play our game and get some momentum back,” Parker said. “Once we got a little momentum, our game started coming out.”
“When we were down 20-11, Jonni just jumped into the middle of the huddle and told the girls not to look at the score, that we were going to get back into this,” Bensman said.
The Viking defense began adjusting to the attacks coming from all angles, with Black, Jillian Wesco and Hellyer keeping the ball off the floor long enough to get the offense back in system. Black — who set the single-season record in digs this year — had a match-high 20, Hellyer added 14 and Wesco 13 as East won the defensive battle 68-62.
“That’s one of the best teams we’ve faced all year hitting-wise,” Black said. “They have so many different hitters, but our block was helpful. It allowed me to get where I needed to be so I could get balls up.”
Two kills by Parker and a block and a kill by Hellyer cut the deficit to 21-16, then back-to-back kills by senior Emma Monnin and an error made it 23-19. The Vikings’ fourth service error of the game gave the Lancers a series of set points — but another kill by Monnin, an error and a block by Parker made it 24-22 before Brzozowski finally ended the set with a kill to put the Vikings one set away from elimination.
“We knew about (Parker) and (Hellyer) coming in, but (Monnin) really did some damage to us,” Coughlin said. “That’s a player we weren’t counting on having to defend. That threw our gameplan out of whack. She played fantastic and really threw a monkey wrench into our system.”
“Emma was just unconscious,” Bensman said. “She played outstanding and helped keep us in it.”
Monnin stayed hot in Game 4, too, putting down five more kills and helping the Vikings build a 17-13 lead. But the Lancers won four of the next five points to get back to within 18-17, then a five-point run — spurred on by three East errors — gave Gilmour a 22-19 lead and forced the Vikings to burn both of their timeouts. A kill by Parker and an ace by Wesco made it 22-21, but a kill and ace by Turk and a kill by Katie Forsythe allowed the Lancers to celebrate and move on to face undefeated St. Henry in Saturday’s state title game — and left the Vikings waiting for next year.
Parker finished with a match-high 21 kills to go with 17 assists, an ace, seven digs and four blocks, Monnin added 10 kills and two digs and Hellyer had 10 kills, 14 digs and three blocks. Black led the defense with 20 digs and had two aces and two assists, Gump had 23 assists and two digs, Taylor McCuistion had three kills and eight digs, Reagan Morrett had two kills, three blocks, an assist and a dig, Runner had a kill and a dig and Wesco had an ace and 13 digs.
Turk and Grbac each had 13 kills to lead the Lancers, Forsythe added six and Brzozowski and Snelling had five apiece. Turk also had three of the team’s nine aces, and Forsythe led the defense with 18 digs.
“It was a defensive battle, for sure,” Coughlin said. “There wasn’t much separating the digs or the hitting percentage, any of the stats, really. This was just going to be a match that came down to who made the least errors — and who had a little bit of luck. In Game 4, we fought back. It was always going to be about who controlled the ball best, and I think we did that.”
The Lancers will be trying for their first-ever state title Saturday despite seven appearances at the state tournament — including five runner-up finishes. For the Vikings, it was their third appearance and first time back after winning back-to-back state titles in 2011 and 2012, defeating the Lancers for their first one in 2011.
And while Miami East graduates seniors Black, Monnin, Runner and Karson Mahaney, the Vikings will bring back a lot of firepower next seasons — and experience and expectations, as well.
“With Jonni and I both being sophomores, we’re going to have experience with this,” Hellyer said. “We’ll be able to help the underclassmen coming up because we know what it takes to get here and what it takes once you’re here.”
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.