LANCASTER — Over the course of the entire 2017 season, each of the members on the Notre Dame Titans’ volleyball program have always stayed true to the standards that Kelsey Glockner and her staff have set forth, while showing mental toughness along the way.
It showed throughout the regular season, where Notre Dame not only went undefeated in the SOC I and dropped just a single set in conference play en route to yet another outright conference title, but against the three best volleyball opponents in the county to date in Clay, Portsmouth, and Wheelersburg, where the Lady Titans went 12-2 en route to winning all four of its contests between the trio. It showed in sectional and district play, where Notre Dame swept Paint Valley, Miller, and Federal Hocking on its way to its third Division IV District Championship in four seasons.
But if there were ever a match that truly epitomized the mental toughness that Notre Dame has shown, along with the wonderful strides that the Lady Titans have made over the past several seasons in the game of volleyball, Wednesday evening’s Division IV, Region 15 contest against the Waterford Lady ‘Cats was certainly it.
In the aforementioned match, the two faces of the Division IV Southeast District volleyball scene battled in a gritty, hard-fought three-set match that represented the best of both programs and both schools in the process.
At the end of the day, however, Notre Dame’s relentlessness wasn’t going to be denied. A total of 35 combined kills from the star frontline trio of Clara Hash, Katie Dettwiller, and Lexi Smith, along with excellent placement attack attempts from Smith, Cassie Schaefer, and Taylor Schmidt and 55 digs from the entire Notre Dame lineup, allowed the Lady Titans to collect its first regional tournament victory in the history of the volleyball program with a straight-set victory over Waterford (25-19, 25-22, 25-23) on Wednesday evening at Lancaster High School in a thrilling volleyball matchup between the two programs.
When close matchups such as Wednesday evening’s affair occurs, people look to the overall talent evident on one roster as compared to the other in order to make the differences. But with both rosters essentially dead-even from that standpoint, it was clear that Notre Dame’s mental toughness and team chemistry made all the difference down the stretch of all three sets.
“Waterford’s super-athletic,” Glockner said. “They’ve been to state. They’re used to this stage, and they’re used to this environment, so we knew that they were going to come out ready, and we knew that we had to show up with our very best game. We knew that we were capable of winning if we showed up and did what we were supposed to do, and the girls just decided that they were going to make school history today with getting to a regional final. No matter what the score was, what was happening, who was getting the kills, or who was doing what, the girls continued to work together as a team and decided they weren’t going to leave the floor without a win. They never turned back.”
That was evident from the outset, when Notre Dame, competing in its third regional semifinal affair in four seasons, showed the fire and grit necessary to advance by quickly jumping all over Waterford en route to an 8-3 advantage early on in the first set behind a kill and an ace from Smith and a great tap kill by Schmidt where the sophomore simply found the sweet spot in the defense and aimed right for it.
For the match, Schmidt and Schaefer, who used the quick taps to create problems for the Waterford defense all evening long combined for seven kills, with four of them coming off of the quick plays. Schmidt, by herself, had five kills to just one attack error by comparison in collecting a team-best .308 attack percentage.
“We talk about pushing the ball when another team is in transition,” Glockner said. “We had studied, we had scouted, and we knew some holes. We had a gameplan, and we went over it. We had a test, and the girls just came prepared and ready to execute the gameplan. They were able to do that.”
Waterford, however, didn’t go away. In fact, the Lady ‘Cats — behind a kill from Alli Kern and a ball handling error, along with an attack error, from Notre Dame, rallied with a 4-1 run to close the Notre Dame lead to 9-7.
But the Lady Titans had other plans.
Behind a wonderful spurt from Clara Hash — who collected four kills in an eight volley stretch — along with two kills from Smith and an excellent defensive effort that stymied Waterford’s attempts to obtain volleys on its own, allowed Notre Dame to answer back with a monstrous 9-2 spurt that gave the Lady Titans an 18-9 advantage. Waterford closed to within a 22-19 margin after that but could come no closer as Lexi Smith added two additional kills while Ali Smith added the first of her two aces on the evening to help close the deal.
As strong as the hitting and the defensive play was in that first set, it was the serving, arguably, that made the difference on Wednesday evening. Ali Smith, Hash, and Schaefer all collected perfect serving marks on the evening, while Lexi Smith added three aces for a team that kept Waterford on its heels by obtaining a strong 94.4 percent serving tally on the night.
“We served aggressive,” Glockner said. “We had a gameplan to serve aggressive to try to get Waterford out of their system offense, so that Waterford couldn’t enable their hitters to do what they’re capable of. I thought that we did a nice job of that, as well as coming up with the great digs and the great sets to push our offense and make it hard on them to get back in a system offense. On serve receive and on offense, we were able to get it done to help eliminate them being able to get it done by preventing them from getting into a system offense.”
In the second frame, Waterford managed to counter by coming out firing with Kern. The senior, a multi-sport standout, obtained nine kills on the evening, with five of them coming in the second set as the Lady ‘Cats fought off 11 ties or lead changes en route to taking a 9-8 lead, then put Notre Dame on the defense by scoring six straight points to take a 14-8 advantage.
But Notre Dame, after watching as Waterford held a solid margin all the way out to the 30th volley — where Waterford led by a 17-13 margin at that point — showed the grit and toughness that has made the Lady Titans such a feared opponent.
“We pride ourselves on how we respond to adversity and how we respond to mistakes that we make on our own,” Glockner said. “Each player just takes responsibility for their own mistakes. They don’t blame each other. I’ll yell, ‘Respond! Respond!’ That just means for every player to take their mistakes on their shoulder, know what they need to fix, and go out and get the next point. Everybody doesn’t lose sight of that. How these girls have responded in this year’s postseason tournament is just the most beautiful thing because it’s what we’ve preached all year. Everyone’s just being selfless, taking it on the chin, and getting it done. It’s all you can ask for as a coach, because you’re going to make mistakes, but how we respond is what it’s going to take in order to create a positive outcome.”
And after battling back en route to cutting the lead to a two-point margin, 18-16, behind two additional kills from Lexi Smith, the girl that is dubbed “Tournament Katie” — for good reason — took over.
With the second set hanging in the balance, Dettwiller made a thunderous presence by collecting two kills and two blocks to give Notre Dame a 23-20 advantage. Then, when Waterford cut the lead back down to a 23-21 margin off of a kill, Dettwiller and Hash responded with two well-placed vaults to put the contest away for good in a wonderful comeback victory.
“We love Tournament Katie,” Glockner said. “We can’t get enough of Tournament Katie, and the fire in her when she turns around with her team. She’s a selfless player that goes in, does her job, and comes out the other side. What she has been able to produce for us right now has been a huge plus for us in tournaments.”
In the third set, both programs, again, went at it back and forth as Notre Dame and Waterford tied or traded the lead 11 times over the first 11 volleys.
However, Notre Dame’s attention to detail on the defensive end paid off once again. In all, seven of the eight players that obtained time for the Lady Titans in the contest obtained four or more digs in the contest as a collective defensive effort, along with a kill each from Dettwiller, Hash, Lexi Smith, and Schaefer, gave the Lady Titans a 15-11 lead. Dettwiller and Hash then added one kill apiece over the following dozen volleys to keep the Notre Dame lead at four, 21-17, heading into the closing stages.
“We talk about that a lot,” Glockner said. “A lot of people see a volleyball game, and they’re sold on the big swings. That’s what’s exciting, and we get that. However, in our gym, we focus on how every role is important. We just work on defense and serve receive until we’re blue in the face. Every player knowing the importance of their defensive role, checking in, and getting it done for us today allowed us to have the offensive attacks that we were able to produce.”
But wike all good things in life, wins, especially against good teams, don’t come easy, either. That was proven when Waterford rallied with its own 5-1 run behind two kills from Morgan Lang, which tied the score at 22-all in the third set of action.
With the game on the line, however, Notre Dame responded with flawless volleyball by going back to the well with Lexi Smith. Smith, who finished the contest with team-highs in kills (14), digs (13), and aces (three), responded with a kill to give the Lady Titans the lead back, then, after Waterford answered with another kill from Megan Ball, executed a tip play perfectly that gave Notre Dame the lead once again. On the final volley of the game, Ali Smith’s serve, which went off to the left side of the floor, was dug up by Waterford, but hit the side of a pulled-up basketball backboard and fell innocently to the floor as Notre Dame closed out the game and the match in thrilling fashion.
“We called in a couple of plays,” Glockner said. “I knew that Waterford would be gunning for Lexi with two blockers. We just called in what to do, and she tipped the ball where I told her to. It produced a free ball for us, which enabled us to take the point. She made a selfless play to give us the lead and get us back in control of the set.”
With the victory, Notre Dame improved to 21-5 overall and took home its 11th consecutive affair while winning, as mentioned, the school’s first-ever regional tournament affair in the sport of volleyball.
And with that, the Lady Titans, who have already accomplished their first and second goals in 2017, are just one victory away from obtaining their dream goal — an OHSAA Division IV State Final Four berth.
“We are about one game at a time,” Glockner said. “We always have our eye on a big long-term goal, but in order to reach that goal, you have to take each game as it comes. Now, we’re finally at that game where it’s the big goal. We’re going to get to the gym (on Thursday) and we’re going to go over what we need to do for two days. Then, we’re going to head up to Lancaster on Saturday, give it our best shot, and show up as the team we are. Win or lose, my kids will leave it all on the court, no matter what the ultimate outcome of the game is.”
Notre Dame will play Fairfield Christian Academy on Saturday afternoon in the OHSAA Division IV, Region 15 Finals. The contest will commence at 2 p.m. inside the halls of Lancaster High School.
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT