By Josh Brown
CASSTOWN — After their Division III state semifinal volleyball match last season, a four-set win over Miami East, eventual champion Gilmour Academy’s coach had a suggestion for then-Miami East assistant coach Dan Peterson.
The Vikings took him up on it.
“I remember seeing their coach after our semifinal last year. I shook his hand, and he looked at me and said ’ let’s do it again next year,’” Peterson said. “And we both lived up to our end of the deal.”
Miami East (23-5) and Gilmour Academy (23-4) will meet in a rematch of last year’s semifinal in the same round Friday at Wright State’s Nutter Center, a match which will mark the Vikings’ fourth state tournament appearance in the last six year — and the third time the Vikings and Lancers have met at state during that run.
In 2011, Miami East defeated Gilmour to win its first ever state championship. In last year’s state semifinal rematch, the Lancers got revenge, winning 26-28, 25-20, 25-22, 25-21 en route to its first ever state championship — they defeated St. Henry in five sets to win the title.
Last year, Gilmour Academy was ranked No. 3 and Miami East No. 17 in the final state poll. This season, the Lancers were the poll champion, finishing ranked No. 1, while the Vikings finished ranked 16th. This year will also be Gilmour’s eighth state appearance, including five runner-up finishes with three straight semifinal victories.
“Yeah, they’re familiar to us,” Peterson said. “And they have a lot of their same cast back.”
In last year’s matchup, then-senior Alexa Turk and then-sophomore Ella Grbac led the Lancers with 13 kills apiece, Katie Forsythe added six and Julia Brzozowski and Maria Snelling each had five — and most of those players return.
“They are what they are,” Peterson said of Gilmour. “They’re an aggressive team. They serve aggressive, and on their swings, they aren’t much for tipping. They’re going for it. We expect a very aggressive gameplan from them. We know they don’t change much — they pretty much are what they are, and it’s pretty much just try and stop it. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
But the Vikings’ two leaders in kills from that match, Jonni Parker and Kyndall Hellyer, also return, with the duo combining for 31 of the Vikings’ 47 kills on that day.
“It’s going to be two more mature teams out there,” Peterson said. “We return a lot, they return a lot. We’re going to be familiar with each other, sure, but at the same time, we’ve changed a little bit, too, and I’m sure they have, as well. There’s always going to be that feeling-out process at the beginning just to make sure we’re all on the same page.”
With the goal of not only making it back to the level but also moving on to Saturday’s state title game, this year’s Vikings toughened their schedule to better prepare throughout the year for this very moment.
“We feel pretty good. We’ve played a tough non-conference schedule,” Peterson said. “Two of our non-conference opponents, Bishop Hartley and Dublin Coffman, are both at state, too, and we scrimmaged Jackson Center, which is at state. Seven of our 10 non-conference opponents were in the regional, whether it be Ohio or Indiana’s playoffs. So we feel like we’ve prepared a lot better this season for what we’re going to face in the tournament. So far it’s paid off, and hopefully that will continue.”
Six of the Vikings’ players this year — Parker, Hellyer, Jillian Wesco, Reagan Morrett, Taylor McCuistion and Carly Gump — played in last season’s state semifinal match, meaning that East will have not only this group’s quest to cement its own legacy in the program’s tradition while getting some payback on its side, but also lots of previous experience at the state level.
And above all? These Vikings are driven by their desire to win a championship of their own.
“The reaction so far has been perfect,” Peterson said. “We came in after school (Monday) and watched some film of us on Saturday (the regional final win over Utica) just to pick out a few things we need to work on and change. Our practice approach was very … business-like, would be a good way to put it.
“We went in there with a purpose, and it was probably one of our best practices of the season. They understand the position they’re in, especially with five seniors that want to go out on top as opposed to last year. The maturity of where we’re at and what we’re capable of is really shining through here.”
The state semifinal match is at 6 p.m. Friday at the Nutter Center, with the winner playing either Sparta Highland or Tuscarawas Valley for the championship at 5 p.m. Saturday.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.