By Josh Brown
and Kyle Shaner
KETTERING — Miami East’s upperclassmen remember, all too well, what Versailles did to them in the regional semifinal round in 2013 and 2014.
The beginning of Thursday’s matchup gave some of the Vikings flashbacks.
“I definitely remember that,” junior Kyndall Hellyer said of the three-game rout at the hands of the Tigers her freshman year in 2014. “All the younger kids, they didn’t know how much this game meant to people like me and (fellow junior) Jonni (Parker). We wanted to come back and beat them.”
Versailles won the first five points of the match and began Thursday night’s Division III regional semifinal on a 9-1 run, looking to recreate what had happened in 2014. But the Vikings, while still dropping the first game, found their footing and made it competitive — and then the two volleyball powerhouses slugged it out over the next three games, with Miami East making every clutch play when it counted to close out a thrilling four-set victory, 22-25, 25-18, 28-26, 25-19 at Fairmont’s Trent Arena to advance to Saturday’s regional title game.
“It means a whole lot, after freshman year,” Parker said. “We came out a little shaky at first, and we never really got our momentum back in the first set. But our response this year has been so much better. We’ve been working on that all year. I’m proud of the team and what we did tonight.”
“The feeling we had freshman year … I don’t want to say that Jonni and I weren’t ready, but we had that freshman mindset,” Hellyer said. “Now that we’re juniors, we’re so much stronger and can lead the team more and show them that this game means so much to us — and they all stepped up, and I’m really proud of everyone.”
The match was Miami East’s (22-5) sixth straight appearance in the regional semifinal round, where they have a 3-2 record — and have gone on to advance to the state tournament after each of those three wins, including last season. In Saturday’s regional final, they will face Utica, which swept Anna 3-0 in the early semifinal.
Those two losses, though? Both to Versailles (20-6), as well as a sectional final loss to the Tigers the year before their current run began.
“When you start two freshman and a sophomore, you’re bound to have some jitters. That’s not to be unexpected,” Miami East coach Dan Peterson said. “We tell them it’s okay to be a little nervous at first, but don’t play scared. And I think you saw that, once they got their feet wet a little but, that they weren’t scared anymore. They were pretty comfortable with what we were doing.
“For our junior class now to lose to them in three in dominant fashion when they were freshmen, this was a great redemption win. All of our seniors and juniors remember that match, and this match was important to them. And they wanted to make a statement tonight, too.”
After falling behind 9-1 in the first game, the Vikings came roaring back, cutting the lead to 17-14. A run of four straight serves with two aces by Parker even gave Miami East a 19-18 lead, but with the score tie 21-21, Versailles’ Elizabeth Ording put down three kills, and a block by Danielle Winner closed out the set.
The Vikings took charge early in the second, though, building a 13-9 lead before a six-point run by the Tigers later put East down 16-14. With the Vikings up 20-18, though, East made a pair of great saves to keep a point alive and stay out of the net, keeping the ball alive long enough for Hellyer to put down a kill — and freshman libero Sophie Jacomet served the final four points in a row, with senior Jillian Wesco putting down a kill to even up the match at 1-1.
“It’s huge,” Wesco said. “Everyone else was saying we were going to lose this game coming in. That put a fire under us. We wanted to win even harder. We were just so pumped up.”
All of which led up to the all-important third set — and neither team wanted to give it up.
Versailles held the biggest lead of the set after winning the first three points, but beyond that point neither team led by more than two. The Vikings won four straight points — three of them as the Tigers were called for doubles on sets — to take a 4-3 lead, and from there it was back and forth the rest of the way.
The Tigers held the first set point at 24-23, but a kill by Hellyer and a block by Reagan Morrett gave the advantage to East. Ording put down back-to-back kills to put Versailles up 26-25, but a pair of error gave the Vikings set point — and a block by Parker put East one set away from advancing to the regional final.
“I liked the fight in the third set,” Parker said. “That’s what we’ve been working on. That’s what it’s going to take the rest of the tournament.”
“It was back and forth the entire time,” Hellyer said. “We under stress the entire time. Jonni was serving, and I hit an overpass straight down. I looked at Jillian and said ‘hey, we got this. We’ve got to finish this right here.’”
“It was a product of our practices, really,” Peterson said. “We do a lot of drills where we’re in that situation at the end, and you’ve got to beat it. We said in one of our huddles that this is just a practice drill for us, so we need to come out and win it — and oddly enough, in practice this week, we won that drill three times.”
And in the fourth set, Parker and Wesco led the charge early on to help the Vikings take a commanding lead. A quick Wesco kill tied the score at 5-5 and gave the serve Parker, and six points later the Vikings were up 11-5. Hellyer had a block and Wesco another kill during the run, and Parker served up three consecutive aces to cap it off — and East wasn’t challenged again. Versailles got to within two at 21-19, but a kill and then three straight serves by Hellyer closed the match, with Morrett putting down the final kill.
Hellyer led the team with 20 kills on the night and added 18 assists, two aces and 13 digs, while Parker had 16 kills, 21 assists, eight aces, 10 digs and two blocks. Wesco stepped up, as well, with a season-high eight kills — seven of those in the final two sets — three digs and a block.
“Yeah, I wanted that ball,” Wesco said. “The back row really helped us out on those plays by getting the ball right to the setter. We were able to run more options, and then running me quickly when the other team wasn’t up there for a block.”
“We said before the second set started that they were really selling out pretty big outside on Kyndall,” Peterson said. “I told Jonni before the third, if we get a free ball and we’re running hard, give it to Jillian because they have no one there on her. It was a good step up by her. Those were huge.”
Morrett added four kills, two digs and a block, Lydia Conley had two blocks and a dig, Taylor McCuistion had a kill, two blocks and a dig, Jacomet had seven digs and two assists, Gabrielle Hawkins had four digs, an ace and an assist and Kaitlyn Mack had two aces and two digs.
Now the Vikings will look to take the next step and return to the state tournament when they face Utica at 2 p.m. Saturday at Trent Arena.
“It feels good,” Peterson said. “We’ve said all season, we’ve got a really big team, they want some really big things — and some really big rings. This is just another step on that journey.”
Versailles coach Kenzie Bruggeman was disappointed with the loss.
“I think we just broke down mentally,”she said. “That’s all it was. We just weren’t able to step out and accept the challenge. We knew that it was going to be a challenge, but we weren’t really able to engage ourselves in the game and just go out and take it. We could’ve. We could’ve taken it. But that’s OK.
“They started to run a quicker middle, and we were releasing out to their outsides every time, so just a lot of discipline things and then that led to us not talking, not working as one and that was very evident on the court.”
With Thursday’s loss Versailles ended its season with a 20-6 record. The Tigers won a share of the Midwest Athletic Conference championship and for a fourth consecutive year made it to the regionals.
“I like it but not where we ended,” Bruggeman said of her first season as the Versailles head coach. “I think we could have went a lot farther, but lesson learned.”
Thursday’s loss also marked the end of the high school volleyball careers of Versailles seniors Lindsey Didier, Bailey Huffman, Kami Ording and Taylor Tyo.