SOUTH WEBSTER — Simply put, all indications are the South Webster Jeeps are jump-starting their Division III thrill ride the same way they have in Division IV.
With a sectional championship sweep.
That’s because third-seeded South Webster, with an efficient and only hour-long three-set sweep of the visiting Portsmouth Trojans on Thursday, began what they plan is another long postseason volleyball tournament trail — to the exact same destination as November of last year.
That being the state tournament on the campus of Wright State University.
This Jeep journey opened up with a 25-9, 25-10 and 25-11 vanquishing of the 22nd-seeded Trojans —in which South Webster scored the opening eight points of the first set, the initial 14 points of the second set, and finally turning three third-set ties into a convincing runaway win.
“At this point, it does not matter who your opponent is. You have to go in and be focused, and you have to have the right mindset. Anybody can win any match when you reach this stage. And I feel like we have a target on our back, but at the same time, I feel like fear can’t be the driving force behind our play either,” said SWHS veteran head coach Darcee Claxon. “It’s about finding that balance. We have some seasoned veterans out there, but we also have some very young girls too. It’s going to be interesting to see how they are able to pick each other up and play together and find that rhythm as we go forth through this tournament. It absolutely helps to have the experience we have, but we’re going to have to rely on each other because we’re on the smaller side of size. Our defense and our serve-receive is our game, we play to the those, and we try to figure out where our opponents’ weaknesses are and exploit those. Every match, our goal is to get better. We’re going to respect our opponent, but we’re going to work to be better each time out.”
With Thursday’s triumph, the Jeeps raised their stellar record to 21-2 — with now a whopping 20 victories coming consecutive.
That’s correct, as South Webster —with four incredibly significant graduation losses following the program’s first-ever appearance in the state tournament last season —won its opener over Waverly with a sweep, but then lost in five sets at Wheelersburg AND against Adena within three days of each other in late August.
Since then, it’s been indeed a September and October to remember —as the Jeeps, as part of this 20-game win streak, gained a measure of revenge against Wheelersburg, winning in five games in the return tilt at South Webster.
Ultimately, for the second time in three years sandwiched around an outright Southern Ohio Conference Division II championship last fall, the Jeeps and Pirates split the SOC II title.
Wheelersburg and Adena, incidentally, are the top two Division III Southeast District seeds —with South Webster, after winning the Division IV Region 15 championship, being bumped up by the Ohio High School Athletic Association enrollment count to Division III.
At first, it was not welcome news to Coach Claxon and the Jeeps.
But the Jeeps adjusted with their graduation losses, settled in and settled down, and have ran roughshod over the competition since.
Only four of their matches within this win-streak window have gone beyond three sets —with Wheelersburg and Notre Dame, the eight-time outright SOC I champion, going all the way to five.
South Webster was also a Division III program four years ago, but back in Division IV the past three years —it has reached the regional semifinals three times, and the regional championship bout twice.
“I’m not going to lie, there was lot of disappointment for us when that (Division III placement) was announced. If you look at Wheelersburg’s bench and Adena’s bench and a lot of these teams which have 25 kids or the fact that they have girls soccer…we have 17 kids in our program both varsity and junior varsity,” said Claxon. “ It was defeating in a way at the time. We felt we had a really good shot at repeating (for Division IV regional championship), and when you compare apples and oranges, it’s not the same.”
But the Jeeps, just like on Thursday, have not been deterred.
Lauren Kaltenbach served for those eight opening first-set points, and after a Trojan service error to open the second, Bella Claxon served for 13 in a row for a 14-0 advantage.
At that juncture, although Portsmouth posted three straight points, the wonder was with some observers could the Jeeps pitch an unheard of 25-0 shutout.
They didn’t, and although the Trojans took their only lead with the third game and a Kennedy Bowling kill for the first point, South Webster was quickly back ahead at 2-1 and 3-2 — amid 1-1, 2-2 and 3-3 ties.
South Webster won eight straight points to lead 11-3, and never looked back in finishing the match off.
Bella Claxon set for 29 of the Jeeps’ 34 assists —with six Jeeps (Natalie Adkins nine, Bella Claxon seven, Skylar Zimmerman seven, Riley Raynard six, Makayla Raynard six and Mia Crum five) collecting at least five kills.
Claxon with four and Kaltenbach and Zimmerman with three apiece led in aces, as libero Addison Claxon recorded 11 of the club’s 41 digs.
Bella Claxon and Adkins added a block assist apiece.
“I just kept telling these girls all along that you don’t know what you’re capable of. Like don’t let that (being Division III) defeat you before the season even starts. Let’s see what we can do,” said the coach. “We came out here unsure of what was going to happen, but I think we surprised ourselves.”
In fact, if you stop and think, the Jeeps are just two sets away from an undefeated season to this point.
But Coach Claxon said, “being undefeated is really overrated when you go into tournament.”
“I’ve always said this, but when you’ve already lost and you know what that feels like, you don’t have that monkey on your back,” she said. “That doesn’t bother me. We’ve been battled-tested. We know how to compete and how to compete against good quality teams. Teams that on paper are bigger than we are, but we know how to do that.”
Indeed, all indications are that the Jeeps’ wheels are turning towards a strong run in now Division III.
On Tuesday, at Eastern High School, South Webster played fellow SOC II foe West for the third time this campaign —in a district semifinal bout.