WAVERLY — Truth be told, through its rugged regular season and at the district level at least, South Webster was just as strong for the Division III tournament field — as it was in Division IV.
That’s because the Jeeps, just a year after appearing in the Division IV volleyball state tournament and following three consecutive Southeast District Division IV championships, jumped up to Division III —and ended up sweeping their way to a fourth straight district crown.
On Saturday at Waverly High School, third-seeded South Webster fought off a hard-charging early effort by underdog and ninth-seeded North Adams, then pulled away with similar victories in the final two sets —capturing a 25-22, 25-18 and 25-19 win for its fifth district championship in seven years.
For Jeep seniors Natalie Adkins and Riley Raynard, they’ve never not held up —or posed for postmatch pictures without —a district championship trophy.
For Jeep junior Bella Claxon, she reached a massive milestone —setting for her 2,000th career assist, with her senior season still ahead, and perhaps four more matches this fall.
With the victory, the Jeeps captured their 22nd consecutive win, raised their stellar record to 23-2, and advanced to Thursday’s Division III regional semifinals at Logan High School.
That’s correct, as South Webster —with four incredibly significant graduation losses following the program’s first-ever appearance in the (Division IV) 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 22-match win streak, gained a measure of revenge against Wheelersburg, winning in five games in the return tilt at South Webster.
Now, the Jeeps are geographically located lower than the “Lancaster-Dixon line” for this regional round —but are just as thrilled to still be playing in November.
South Webster won its seventh all-time district championship on Saturday.
Darcee Claxon, the veteran SWHS head coach, said a district title — despite moving up a division — does validate the Jeeps’ stellar season, of which the first goal was successful defense of its now three-time Southern Ohio Conference Division II championship.
“It feels good, just because after last year some people probably thought we would be down and being moved up to Division III, would we be able to compete. I think that we showed we can,” said the coach. “Just how hard they’ve (Jeeps) worked together, how disciplined they’ve been, how they’ve believed in themselves. I’m just super-proud of these girls and what they’ve accomplished. Maybe when other people didn’t give us respect, they believed in themselves. I’m just proud of them for coming together and performing and for doing what they needed to do to be successful to get back here. And not just to get back here, but to win and move on.”
The Jeeps, although never trailing by more than two points at any one particular juncture in the match, did have to navigate North Adams staying within striking distance — in the early goings of each game.
The opening set featured five lead changes and eight ties —the final occurring at 18-18.
South Webster won seven of the final 11 points for the 25-22 triumph, but it did take a Mia Crum kill to finish the set off —and offset a Jeep double-hit.
There were were four lead changes and five ties in each of the final two sets —including at 5-5, 6-6, 7-7, 8-8 and 9-9 in the third—before Lauren Kaltenbach served for back-to-back aces, and an 11-9 advantage which South Webster wasn’t about to relinquish.
Addison Claxon came to the service line for five more points with three aces, as the Jeeps opened up leads as large as 20-12, 21-13, 22-14 and 23-15.
The Green Devils did reduce the deficit in half, but a thunderous Adkins kill — to the loud cheers of the South Webster faithful — finished the match off.
“If you watch us play, I feel like we’ve faced adversity in each game we’ve played. If you look at our personnel and our strengths and weaknesses, that’s just how it is for us. We have to battle through it and work through it and figure it out,” said Coach Claxon. “We’re able to finish and come together and do what it takes to win games. We serve aggressively, we play good defense. We know what our strengths are and we have to play to those. We know what our weaknesses are and we have to limit those. That’s just what we do and will have to continue to do.”
While Adkins’ kill drew the natural game-ending applause, the biggest ovation was for Bella Claxon — early in the second game.
Those ties were at 3-3, 4-4, 5-5, 6-6 and lastly 8-8, but it was Claxon’s assist to Raynard that clinched her 12th of the match —and the epic 2,000th for her career.
The match momentarily stopped in order for Claxon to be recognized, and saluted, by the boisterous South Webster student section.
Of the Jeeps’ 33 assists on Saturday, Claxon set for 28 —giving her 781 on the season, as only Addison Claxon with 54 and Skylar Zimmerman with 42 are even others in double digits.
“I think it’s special, but you have to remember that she has had some spectacular hitters out there,” said Coach Claxon, who is also Bella’s mother. “She sees the court well and distributes the ball well, she is a fantastic setter who has been very blessed by deep tournament runs like this every year. You can see it has paid off tremendously.”
Bella called it “crazy”, citing the Jeeps’ offense switch from a 6-2 in her freshman season to a one-setter attack —starting last year.
“I knew with a one-setter offense, I would get a lot more assists. But my hitters have done just a great job finding different ways to get kills. They are not just pounding the ball into the floor. They are getting shots and being smart about it,” she said. “They’ve just really helped me throughout.”
Six Jeeps combined for the 37 team kills against North Adams, with all six recording at least four — including Adkins at nine and Bella Claxon at eight.
The Jeeps dropped in a dozen aces, including four by Addison Claxon, as Crum converted for five —including a straight second-set four.
At that point, the Jeeps trailed in the set 8-6, but regained the serve on a service error —as Crum collected her four, and South Webster went on a roll.
The Jeeps opened up leads as large as 22-14, 23-15 and 24-16 — before winning the second game 25-18.
Addison Claxon, the freshman libero, dug up 14 balls —the only double-digit digger as the Jeeps finished with 45.
North Adams ended its season at 17-8, as sophomore Katelynn Boerger led in kills with 10 —part of only a team 24.
The Green Devils — like even Portsmouth and West in postseason play prior to Saturday — did present some size over the smaller Jeeps, but South Webster was just as strong in this Division III field.
“It’s a big deal. The bottom line is that we’re playing against schools which are bigger than we are,” said Coach Claxon. “So this (district championship) feels good.”
As for the regional semifinals, it’s an encounter against Meadowbrook — which actually moved down a division to III from II this year.
South Webster will meet the East District champion, and senior-laden Colts, in essentially the middle —inside Logan High School’s Jim Myers Gymnasium at 6 p.m.
“We have a monumental task ahead of us, but we love to compete,” said Claxon. “We’re going to give these girls the best opportunity they can to be successful. We’ll see what happens, but I am excited that we have the opportunity to do that.”