By Skip Weaver
VERSAILLES — The serve in volleyball is more difficult than it looks. It’s not just tossing the ball up an hitting it across the net.
The Versailles Tigers know all about that as serving has been one of their strengths this season. While there are several strong servers in the rotation, the Tigers have relied heavily on senior Alexa Didier and junior Caitlin McEldowney especially during this tournament run.
“It’s all about your toss and hitting your zones,” McEldowney said. “It is about where your arm follows through and just getting that perfect float and driving it deep enough to get the other team out of system.”
McEldowney is deeper in the rotation and usually comes into serve in the middle of a set, which can often times be a critical spot for the Tigers.
“It can be difficult coming in to serve in a crucial situation,” she said. “But you just have to stay focused and do what you have been taught since middle school and just stay calm and serve.”
For Didier, the approach is much the same even with her being the first server in Versailles’ rotation.
“Being the first server in our rotation my focus is just getting as many runs as I can,” Didier said. “You are in control and that is the only thing you can control, so you just have to focus on getting your serve over.
“Then if we are in a tough situation we know we have Caitlin coming up and she is one of the best servers so if we are tied we know we can count on her to get runs that we need to get us up and ahead of the other team.”
Both Didier and McEldowney lead the team with 35 aces and 326 total serves this season. McEldowney is the team leader in service points with 179 and Didier is next at 169.
“What they do is super crucial for the team,” Versailles coach Kenzie Bruggeman said. “Lex is one of our first servers that comes back and in a lot of the tournament games she has gotten us close to five points to start, and that is so huge to be able to start off with that consistent serving so that we can get the ball rolling and get the momentum on our side.
“Then, Caitlin is about our third or fourth server so we rely on her quite a bit too,” she continued. “Serving is a very individual thing. It takes a lot of mental control. You are the only one back there. If something goes wrong it is solely on you, so it is a matter of them being able to calm their nerves, make sure they have a consistent toss and then not only doing that but actually executing where we are trying to serve. We do give them zones so hitting that point and then making sure they go in on defense too. It is a very individualized, very high self-accountability part of the game.”
Versailles is making a return trip to the Division III state tournament this week as it will take on Zoarville Tuscarawas Valley at 6 p.m. tonight in the Division III state semifinals at Wright State University’s Nutter Center. The Tigers are gunning for a second straight state championship after winning the title in 2017.
Last year’s squad was loaded with seven seniors. This year, the Tigers have four including Didier.
“This tournament run has been awesome,” Didier said. “We have become a really close team. At first whenever we started this tournament run we weren’t as close as a team, but we have bonded a lot since then and I think our team chemistry is really strong. We have come a long way.
“I think this run is different than last year’s mainly because it is a different team,” she continued. “We lost seven seniors last year, but the four seniors this year stepped up and a lot of underclassmen had to step up too, so it is just awesome to see how much we have grown and how far we have come. A lot of teams don’t make it back to back so it is pretty awesome that we are back and we are ready to take on whatever comes our way.”
For McEldowney, the transition from last year to this year has a little more to do with family. Her sister – Kami McEldowney – was one of the seniors who graduated.
“This year has been a transition from last year playing with my sister who took me under her wing to playing with a bunch of different passers this year,” McEldowney said. “It definitely took us a little time to adjust and everything, but I think we have a great bond. We all have the same mentality where we stick together and get the job done.
“There is a lot of excitement in going back to state tournament, but I think we all are mentally and physically prepared for it,” she continued. “I don’t feel any pressure. I just want to get there. I’m ready to get on the floor and start playing.”
Bruggeman has one mission for all her servers.
“What we tell all our servers is we want them to score at least three points when they go back there,” Bruggeman said. “On Saturday (against Marion Pleasant) we didn’t do as well with that. We missed a lot of serves so we weren’t able to get our momentum going. That is definitely a focus this week being consistent with our serves so that we do have an opportunity to score in chunks because that is going to be so huge at this point in the tournament.”
Bruggeman also complimented several of the other servers in the Tigers rotation.
“Kelsey (Custenborder) has done a really nice job too,” Bruggeman said. “To think of where her serve was at about the midpoint of the season she was missing quite a few so she has really honed in on that. Also, Lindsey Winner struggled a little bit on Saturday, but overall throughout the whole tournament she has done a really nice job. There are a lot of other ones that go back there and do a consistent job for us too. It is just a matter of going back there with the right mindset of being able to score in those chunks and making sure they stay back there for at least three points.”
Both Didier and McEldowney say they are excited to be returning to the state tournament.
“I’m a senior so this is my last go around,” Didier said. “But it is my second time at state so I’m pretty pumped about it. There is always going to be some jitters, but I’m ready for it. I’m just really excited to play.”
“I feel like we are pretty well prepared and we just have to play our game,” McEldowney said.
For Bruggeman, the excitement of returning to state is as much about the experience as it is about winning.
”I love that I get to experience this with this group of girls,” Bruggeman said. “I have never seen such a shift in mental training and just their own personal growth and I think that is what I am the most proud of. I felt like the team definitely had that last year, but this year even more so. They have been through a lot more adversity to where they really had to push themselves to figure out what type of team they wanted to be and I couldn’t be more proud of how they are responding.”