NEW LEXINGTON — While the South Webster Lady Jeeps (24-2) had one of the best seasons in program history, experience was on the side of Newark Catholic.
The Green Wave — for the second straight season — ended a Scioto County team’s run in the Division IV regional stage, this year doing so against the Lady Jeeps in a regional final played at New Lexington High School.
That’s not to say the Lady Jeeps by any means were an inferior team.
In fact, in each of the first and third sets, South Webster held leads or tied the match in the latter stages against their defending regional champion opponent.
However, in Saturday’s 3-1 defeat (25-23, 15-25, 25-21, 25-19), coach Darcee Claxon’s team couldn’t quite muster the late-game points needed to win three-of-five possible sets.
“We needed to cut out unforced errors. I felt like there were some decisive calls that didn’t go our way. I don’t think that’s the reason we lost, but that can be a big momentum changer,” Claxon said. “After that third set, I could see a sense of fear in them. Their body language, lack of connection with each other. They didn’t quit, though — they kept battling. But it’s hard when you’ve not been on this big of a stage.”
As a result of their four-set victory, Newark Catholic claimed its second straight Division IV regional championship — defeating Shenandoah in three sets a year ago at this same stage.
South Webster was attempting to become the second Division IV program from Scioto County to win a regional title, following in the footsteps of Clay (2018) as the county’s second small-school program to reach the pinnacle — the OHSAA State Tournament.
And it nearly did.
As Claxon said, pivotal points helped determine their fate, but the outcome was not pre-determined before a two-hour bus ride to Perry County and New Lexington High School.
“I think there was this idea that maybe we were going to come here and get shellacked, and that was not the case,” Claxon said. “These girls came and they played, and they showed what they were capable of. This is one of the best South Webster volleyball teams we’ve ever had, and they showed that again.”
The Lady Jeeps no doubt played their best volleyball in set two — a decisive 25-15 victory and coincidentally the largest point-differential in any of the four sets — which helped even the game at 1-1 heading into game three.
During that second set, South Webster did its best work with junior Faith Maloney at the service line.
Maloney led her team to a run of eight straight points to stretch its lead to 24-12 in the latter stages — just one stretch of her 19-kill, seven-dig and two-ace performance.
Bri Claxon had 11 kills and 15 digs, while twin sister Graci Claxon had a team-high 17 digs and two service aces — both playing a key role in slowing down the Green Wave’s offensive attack.
Freshman Bella Claxon had a team-high 22 assists and 13 kills, while senior setter Kendall Bender had 17 assists.
Rylee McGraw and Gwen Messer had eight and five digs, respectively, in addition to Messer’s four kills.
Messer, Bender and Liz Shupert are the three Lady Jeep seniors who will graduate following the conclusion of their 2020-21 school year.
Coach Claxon noted how much each of their leadership and play meant to this year’s group, whose finish tied for the best in program history.
“I’m very proud of them. They’re just good kids and they work hard,” Claxon said. “Gwen has really developed for us as a hitter. She came into her high school career as a setter, we transitioned her last year to a full-time hitting role and she really embraced that. Kendall is a leader. She tells kids what to do and has no problems doing it, and they really respond to her and love her for that. Liz is a quiet leader, but she’s a selfless kid and even though she doesn’t get a lot of playing time, she’s a phenomenal teammate and as a coach that’s something that’s great to see.”
While the losses from this year’s group of Lady Jeeps are significant, even more significant is what they return.
Maloney, each of the Claxons, McGraw, Natalie Adkins and other reserves will all be back for the 2021 season.
While the result isn’t quite what they were hoping for, it’s an improved finish from their 2019 run — which ended in a regional semifinal loss.
If history is to repeat itself, and South Webster improves by a game in its finish next season, it will mean the program’s first regional title and state appearance.
“To know that we can compete with teams up north, that we could have won this game but things didn’t go our way, I hope that hunger and desire simmer all year long. That way, those things can drive us through the preseason and next year to be more disciplined and to work toward the things we know we need to do to get to the next level,” Claxon said.
Newark Catholic will face defending Division IV state champion New Bremen in the OHSAA state semifinals at Vandalia Butler High School on Saturday.
Reach Jacob Smith at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @JacobSmithPDT © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved