By Rob Kiser
FAIRBORN — Bang-bang.
It was that quick for the Versailles volleyball team — and Alexa Didier from the service line on the final two points as the Lady Tigers will have a chance to defend its D-III state title Saturday.
The Lady Tigers handled Tuscarawas Valley 25-6, 25-21, 25-18 the semifinals for the second straight year Thursday at the Nutter Center. Versailles, 20-10, will play 25-3 Independence, who beat previous unbeaten Defiance Tinora in three sets Thursday, at 1 p.m. Saturday with the title on the line.
“It is amazing,” Elizabeth Ording said. “Especially as a senior. I didn’t really think we would be back here this year.”
In all fairness, the Lady Tigers 10-10 start to the season had a lot to do with playing state-ranked teams in the MAC on a nightly basis.
“Any weakness, any problem you have as a team are going to get exposed right away,” Versailles coach Kenzie Bruggeman said.
Junior Lindsey Winner said the team never doubted they would turn things around.
“Part of it is we were playing a lot of different combinations, trying to figure out what the right combination was,” Winner said. “We said we still have the tournament to go, the season is not over. We got this.”
And they didn’t waste any time showing that to Tuscarawas Valley.
A kill by Winner put her at the service line with Versailles leading 6-3.
Nine points later, including two aces, Versailles was leading 15-3 and on the way to a 25-6 first set win.
“I was thinking, let’s go,” Winner said. “Let’s keep this going. Let’s get another point.”
During that run, 6-foot-3 middle Brooke Stonebraker — who stepped in for the injured Emma George — had four assists blocks, three with Reagan Shaffer and one with Kelsey Custenborder had one.
“I was a little bit nervous,” Stonebraker said. “But, I had confidence. Getting those blocks early helped settle me down. I was excited to have the opportunity.”
And Bruggeman wasn’t surprised by her performance.
“What a job by Brooke (Stonebraker),” she said. “You know, we have moved her around a lot this year. We had her at right side, then at outside, then we told her she was going to play middle. And none of that seemed to bother her.”
Tuscarawas Valley coach Marianne Humphrey, whose team was making its fourth straight Final Four appearance, knew it was going to be a challenge.
“This is my first year back after coaching the team before,” she said. “We just don’t see the competition Versailles sees in the MAC. That is one of the reasons I hesitated about taking the job. But, it is what it is.”
At the same time, she knew her team was better than they showed in the first set.
“That’s not the way we play,” she said. “But, I had two freshman and two sophomores out there. We just needed to regroup.”
And Bruggeman wasn’t going to let her team letup.
“That’s what we talked about between sets,” she said. “We are not satisfied. There is only a one up there next to our name. We are not going to be satisfied until there is a three up there (and the match is won).”
And while the Trojans were very competitive in the final two sets, Versailles did what it does, winning all the big points.
It was clear last Saturday in the regional finals when Versailles won the final two sets 30-28 and 27-25.
And while less dramatic, it was more of the same Thursday as the team extended its winning streak to 10 matches.
After an aced by Didier gave Versailles a 22-17 lead in the second set, Tuscarawas Valley closed the gap to 23-21.
After a Versailles sideout, Abby Stammen finished the set with an ace.
“This is what we work on every day in practice,” Ording said. “It’s tough and a lot of work, but I am glade we do it.”
In the final set, a combined block by Stonebraker and Shaffer and two kills for sideouts by Ording had Versailles on the verge of ending the match at 23-18.
Then, Didier stepped to the service line and finished it with two aces.
“We always talk about bang-bang,” Didier said. “When you step to the service at 23, you need to finish it. After the first ace, I wasn’t expecting a second one. But, it was exciting. It was a surprise, but it was exciting.”
For the Trojans, Sage Peters had 11 kills, while Jadyn Kuykendall had 15 assists.
Peters and Ashley Merritt both had six digs.
“We had four girls with negative attack percentages,” Humphrey said. “When you do that, you are not going to win. I am so proud of these two seniors (Jadyn Kuykendall, Sage Peters). Again, I think the biggest difference is the competition Versailles plays all season.”
Winner and Ording both had 12 kills for Versailles, while Kelsey Custenborder dished out 29 assists.
Shaffer had eight blocks and Stonebraker had seven, while Didier served four aces and Caitlin McEldowney led the defense with nine digs.
“Caitlin (McEldowney) has done a great job moving to the libero position this year,” Bruggeman said. “We have a few girls back (in the nine-girl rotation), but we have some new girls. Even Rebecca Knapke getting experience in her first year of varsity volleyball. Coaching these girls (and making the tournament runs) is just so much fun.”
And they will be back Saturday, looking for another bang-bang finish and a second straight state title.
Rob Kiser is Sports Editor for the Daily Call. He can be reached at (937) 451-3334.