By Rob Kiser
FAIRBORN — When it came to the Division III state volleyball semifinals at Wright State University’s Nutter Center Thursday, you could throw out the records — and the rankings.
Which is why 19-10 Versailles — ranked 18th in the final poll — will play No. 9 Independence (25-3) for the state title at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Versailles defeated fifth-ranked Tuscarawas Valley (25-3) 25-6, 25-21, 25-18 and Independence defeated fourth-ranked Defiance Tinora (28-1) 25-15, 25-22, 25-18.
Not that was really a surprise, when you looked at the schedule Versailles and Independence played.
Versailles plays in the prestigious Midwest Athletic Conference — where at one time, St. Henry, Fort Recovery and New Bremen were ranked 1-2-3 in the D-IV state poll and New Bremen will be playing in the D-IV state title game Saturday.
A year ago, the conference had two state champions (Versailles, New Bremen) and a state runnerup. This year, they have two teams (Versailles, New Bremen) playing for state titles Saturday.
“Every night, you are playing someone like that,” Versailles coach Kenzie Bruggeman said. “It is St. Henry, then New Bremen, then Fort Recovery and on and on. Any weakness you have is going to get exposed really quickly.”
And Independence three losses came to Parma Heights Holy Name and Columbus Hartley — who will play for the Division II state title Saturday — along with Lexington (Kentucky) Henry Clay.
Tuscarawas Valley coach Marianna Humphrey admitted as much after the loss to the Tigers.
“The biggest challenge for us is we just don’t play the competition Versailles sees in the MAC,” she said. “We did play Gnadenhutton Indian Valley (splitting two matches), who was a regional finalist in D-II. But, the IVC (Inter Valley Conference) is not the MAC.
“It is not a strong conference. That’s just the way it is.”
Dynamic Duo: Versailles senior Liz Olding and junior Lindsey Winner have led the Tigers all season. And Thursday was no exception, as both had 12 kills on 25 attempts.
Super Sub: Junior 6-foot-3 middle Brooke Stonebraker moved into the regular rotation when Emma George sprained an ankle in the regional final against Marion Pleasant and delivered in a big way. She finished with two kills and seven assist blocks.
That helped the Tigers to a 10.5-3 advantage in total blocks as Versailles had 19 assists blocks and one solo block.
Worth the Wait: Junior middle Raegan Shaffer had to miss last year’s state tournament after an injury in the regional finals against Miami East. She shined on Thursday with four kills on eight attacks and had one solo block and seven assist blocks.
“We knew about 20 (Liz Olding) and 25 (Lindsey Winner),” Humphrey said. “We tried to prepare for their blocking as best we could. But again, it is difficult when you don’t play that kind of competition during the season.”
Same name, different jersey: A year ago, it was Kami McEldowney making one incredible dig after another in Versailles’ state title run. This year, it is her sister Caitlin McEldowney, who served the winning points in last year’s title match against Coldwater, wearing the libero jersey.
“Of course, Caitlin (McEldowney) was a stud last year,” Bruggeman said. “But, she was moving from back row to libero. Libero is not an easy position to play and she has done a great job.”
Setting them up: Senior Kelsey Custenborder has moved into the setter’s role this year and Versailles offense has not missed a beat. She had 29 assists as Versailles finished with 24 percent attack percentage to Tuscarawas Valley’s one percent.
Coming Up Aces: Abby Stammen finished the second set with an ace and Alexa Didier finished the third set with two. Didier had four aces, while Stammen and Winner both had two as Versailles finished with nine aces and just three service errors to Tuscarawas Valley’s two aces and six service errors.
Perfect Set: Tuscarawas Valley never scored a point on serve in the first set, as Versailles was a perfect 6-for-6 on sideouts. The Tigers finished with 69 percent success on sideouts, while Tuscarawas Valley was at 41 percent.
Team effort: “We have some players back from last year, but we have also had a number of girls step up,” Bruggeman said. “Even Rebecca Knapke (3 digs) came in and is getting floor time in her first year of varsity volleyball.”
Overachieving: As tough as the loss was, Humphrey couldn’t have been prouder of her team and especially her seniors Sage Peters and Jadyn Kuykendall.
“Those two girls are special,” Humphrey said about the duo playing in their four straight Final Four. “We weren’t supposed to be here this year. Nobody thought we would be here. So, just getting here, this has been a great season.”
About Independence: The Blue Devils are back in the Final Four after losing to Coldwater in the semifinals a year ago.
They have a new coach this year in Tony Messina.
Against Defiance Tinora, 5-10 outside hitter Lexi Prokopious had 10 kills and four blocks and 5-6 outside hitter Grace Smotek also had 10 kills.
Setter Katie May and Abby Avila combined for 32 assists, while Maddy Bilinovic had 16 digs and Smotek added 15.
On A Roll: Versailles takes a nine-match winning streak into the title match, having lost just four sets in that run. That includes a five-set win over Fort Recovery to close the regular season.
Now, comes the chance to defend the crown — against another battle-tested opponent.
Rob Kiser is Sports Editor for the Daily Call. He can be reached at (937) 451-3334.