By Josh Brown
FAIRBORN — The Miami East volleyball team sent a message to every young girl in the Casstown community Saturday.
Yes, you can do it.
“Looking up into the stands today, I remembered when I was that sixth-grader watching our girls win those two state championships,” Miami East senior Jillian Wesco said, referring to the Vikings’ two titles in 2011 and 2012. “I remember thinking, ‘I want that. I want to do that. I want that to be me.’ Looking into the stands today? It was a great feeling.”
Because this year’s Vikings had finally taken their turn on the state’s biggest stage.
Miami East (25-5) won the first two sets of Saturday’s Division III state championship match in dominant fashion to put Tuscarawas Valley’s back against the wall, but the Trojans (27-2) bounced back to win the next two and force a fifth and final set. In that set, the Vikings — powered by big plays from everyone on the floor — were able to go on a nine-point run to take a 13-4 lead, closing out a 25-18, 25-17, 22-25, 22-25, 15-6 victory to win the school’s third state title in the past six years at Wright State’s Nutter Center.
It was the second straight season these Vikings appeared at the state tournament — they lost to Gilmour Academy in last year’s state semifinal match. But Miami East bested the Lancers in four on Friday and made it a perfect 3 for 3 in state final appearances.
“Those girls (the 2011 and 2012 championship teams) set the bar really high for us,” Miami East senior Taylor McCuistion said. “We’d watched them play since we were in the sixth grade, and we’ve dreamed of this moment, where we’d be them, ever since then.”
“We all grew up watching those teams, those girls, go to the state championship match and win it all. And now we’ve become those girls,” said junior Jonni Parker, who led the Vikings with 26 kills, 15 assists, 14 digs, five aces and four blocks. “It took everybody for us to get here, too, especially some of our younger players like (freshmen) Gabrielle (Hawkins) and Sophie (Jacomet) stepping up this weekend for us to send our seniors out like this.”
“Hats off to our seniors, too,” first-year Miami East coach Dan Peterson said. “They’ve been through four coaches in the last four years. At any point during that time, they could’ve looked at it and said ‘no one’s got the commitment to get us there. Chances are this won’t happen for us.’ But you just can’t measure these girls’ commitment, determination and heart, and they showed that tonight.”
The Vikings looked poised to win in a rout early on. A three-point service run by Parker made the score 21-16, and a pair of Kyndall Hellyer kills and Trojan errors finished off the set. Hellyer then served the first six points of the second set, and East coasted from there to the eight-point win to put itself on the precipice of a championship.
But Tuscarawas Valley, which entered on a 19-game winning streak, did its part to knock the Vikings back from the edge. The Trojans switched setters after a series of doubles cost them points in the first two sets, and they eliminated the service errors which had hurt them, as well. Four kills by Kierrah Stewart during a six-point run in Game 3 gave the Trojans a 16-9 lead, and while the Vikings cut that lead to two late, the Trojans closed out a 25-22 win to stay alive.
A back-and-forth fourth set also went the Trojans’ way. After another series of four kills by Stewart made the score 23-18, the Vikings won four straight points to close to within one at 23-22. But a Stewart kill and then a Stewart ace off the net chord closed that set out, forcing a fifth set and seeming to give the Trojans all of the momentum.
“I knew someone was going to ask that,” Hellyer said with a laugh after the team was asked why it doesn’t like to win in three sets.
“Hats off to Tuscarawas Valley. For a while there, it seemed like they saved every ball,” Peterson said. “Stewart had a really big offensive push, and I was impressed with their defense all around.”
But the business-like Vikings had a formula for success — literally.
“Coach Peterson has an equation that he conveniently put on a wristband for us,” Hellyer said. “Event plus response equals outcome. For us there, the event was winning the first two sets but losing the next two. Our response had to be to come out and win the fifth set. We responded, and our outcome? State champs.”
“We’ve worked from the beginning of summer to now. We’d worked too hard for this moment,” McCuistion said. “We weren’t going to give it up.”
After a service error to start the fifth, the Vikings won four straight points as Parker hammered down a kill, the Trojans hit a pair of shots wide and McCuistion tipped a kill to the back corner to put East up 4-1. The Trojans tied the score with the help of two kills by Kayla Hall — who finished with a team-high 24 kills — but a kill on a tip by senior Reagan Morrett gave the lead back to the Vikings.
And freshman Hawkins made sure they would never lose it again.
“We’re tied 4-4, and we get the serve to Gabrielle Hawkins, who served some huge runs for us yesterday (against Gilmour),” Peterson said. “She’s a freshman, and she doesn’t play a lot of club volleyball either, so sometimes I think she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know — and I think that might have helped in this situation. She just came in and put serves right where they needed to be. You could see the ice running through her veins.”
Hawkins served up eight consecutive points — a run that included back-to-back blocks by Wesco and McCuistion, an ace and three kills by Parker.
And on the final point of the run, Parker made the play of the match, making a diving one-armed save while falling out of bounds to barely get the ball over the net on the third hit, then finishing the play with a block on the Trojans’ Hall to make the score 13-4 East and all but seal the win.
“If there’s one play that epitomizes Jonni Parker, it’s that one,” Peterson said. “It’s that weird, out of system play, where she makes a diving play with one arm to keep it alive, then somehow she gets back up and gets back into position and gets the stuff at the net.”
Tuscarawas Valley won the next two points after that, but a block by Parker and a kill by Hellyer put the finishing touches on the Vikings’ thrilling state final victory.
Hellyer finished with 17 kills, 27 assists, 10 digs, three aces and three blocks, Morrett had six kills, three digs and a block, Wesco had a kill, eight digs and six blocks, McCuistion had a kill, eight digs and two blocks, Jacomet had 21 digs and two assists, Hawkins had five digs, an ace and an assist, Carly Gump had three digs and Lydia Conley had a dig and a block.
And though they bid farewell to five seniors — Wesco, McCuistion, Morrett, Gump and Sidney Pelfrey — the Vikings are already looking to the future.
Well, after some coaxing.
“Already asking about next year, huh?” Peterson said with a laugh. “It’s funny. I was thinking that this is normally the time I start thinking about our next opponent, but I don’t have to do that now. We do lose five seniors, all of whom played big roles in this championship. But when you’re at this level in your program, you reload. You don’t rebuild. We feel good about the future.”
After all, there was plenty of young girls watching in the stands Saturday.
“It was a great feeling, knowing that those girls that are in junior high now were out there watching us and looking up to us,” Hellyer said. “Ready to carry on that tradition.”
And take their turn.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.