NEW WASHINGTON - At one point Thursday night, Upper Sandusky's Taylor Graboski hammered a kill so hard that it nearly knocked over Buckeye Central's Kilee Kimmel.
It was symbolic because Upper Sandusky put itself in a position to knock the Bucks off from their stranglehold of North Central Conference titles with a 24-26, 25-15, 27-25, 19-25, 15-9 victory.
The victory broke a first-place tie with two league games to go. Upper Sandusky plays Colonel Crawford Tuesday and Galion at home Thursday. The Bucks, who have won five straight NCC crowns, fell into a second-place tie with Galion, with Riverdale and Bucyrus left on their slate.
"We have kind of slacked off a little because of some distractions like the homecoming dance and things like that. Obviously to beat a team like Buckeye Central, you have to be on your game," Upper Sandusky coach Matthew McConnaughey said. "We were able to overcome some adversity and fight back. This is the kind of match you want going into tournament time. And beating them gives us a chance to win the league. We beat Galion next week and we win the league outright."
Buckeye Central coach Ken Brubaker said he knows what team he'll be rooting for next week.
"I'm a big fan right now," Brubaker said. "If Galion plays the scrappy defense I know they can play, they're one of the best defenses we've played, if Galion plays a tough defense and if they're aggressive on third touches and make Upper Sandusky play and not make the unforced errors like we did, they have a chance to beat Upper.
"So, a big fan. Hopefully a tie for first," he said. "We controlled our own destiny and we let it slip away. We just got to grow from it and learn from it."
McConnaughey said BC's remaining schedule made Thursday night all that more important.
"I didn't think they were going to play anybody that would let us back in if that happened," McConnaughey said. "So this was a must win for us. That's what we've told them all week."
It was BC's victory over Galion last week that set up this NCC showdown. Brubaker said that win in a way fed into this loss.
"That's a very good Upper Sandusky team. The first time we played them they didn't pass as well as they did this time. They passed the ball very well and because of that, that was a little bit of a difference," Brubaker said. "We had a bad week of practice. I'll admit that. We didn't practice well this week. ... We didn't work as hard this week. ... I think we got a little too satisfied. When you get too satisfied and complacent, you don't play well."
In one of the areas Buckeye Central was complacent was at the net where Upper's height and heavy hitters require more than one blocker.
"We were late on the block. We were going one-on-one with them most of the night and against Upper Sandusky you can't go one-on-one and block. You have to have two people up there every time," Brubaker said. "When you miss assignments against a team like that and you make unforced errors against a team like that, you're going to have to grind."
Namely Graboski, who pounded down 24 kills to go along with four blocks and two aces.
"It's really exciting because that was a really huge game for us," Graboski said. "They beat us in our place so we knew we had to beat them in their place, which is even harder than in our own. ... That was our first loss (at the time) so we were kind of feeling invincible. It was definitely a reality check. But in a way, it was a good thing because it brought us back down and showed us we needed to work even harder in practices."
McConnaughey said Graboski lived up to the reputation she's developed.
"Taylor is one of the most dominant players in Ohio. She came to play," McConnaughey said. "She did her job up at the front with two and three kids in blocking her and she still pounded it. She did a good job in back row the games she played. Taylor is one of a kind. There is only one Taylor. She's a stud."
Jessi Holly had 13 kills and a block and Molly Owens had seven kills and four blocks. Emma Smith dished out 51 assists. Jenna Holly had 32 digs.
After a see-saw battle in the first set, Upper Sandusky (16-2, 11-1 NCC) pulled to game point up 24-21. But the Bucks (16-3, 10-2 NCC) utilized some Rams errors to run off five straight points and win the set.
The Rams bounced back strong in the second set, taking an early 12-5 lead and parlaying it into a 25-15 victory. It was a game that saw Jenna Delarber, who had 14 kills and four blocks on the night, leave for a bit. Brubaker said she's been nursing a shoulder injury.
In set three, Buckeye Central had Upper on the brink of falling behind 2-1 with a 25-24 lead but kills from Jessi Holly and Graboski sandwiched around a Owens block reversed the momentum and gave the Rams the 27-25 victory.
"That was a big time for us to battle. We've played a lot of sets where it was boring. I mean 25-4, you don't have to battle. You don't have to deal with pressure and tonight we had to deal with pressure and my girls did that,"
McConnaughey said. "Neither one of us had anything to lose. We were battling for the league. They would probably win the league outright if they beat us and we got them. So it was huge I think."
Brubaker said giving that game to the Rams was pivotal.
"Huge. (It was) situational volleyball. We did not play good when situations were tight. We didn't play the smart point. We didn't spread the ball around. We were not diverse like we were the first time. When we beat them in three, we were much more diverse team. Tonight, not as diverse."
Buckeye Central lead most of set four. It was tied at 14 at one point before the Bucks pulled away for good with a 25-19 win.
"We battled being down two games to one," Brubaker said. "Same thing at Galion. We battled there. We don't ever give up. This a team that fights."
The Bucks led 3-2 early in the decisive fifth set but it was all downhill from there. It was 8-3 before the Bucks got a side out to end the Rams' run. Moments later it was 13-6 and the Rams didn't look back.
Sierra Hanes had 11 kills for the Bucks. Kimmel and Emily Weithman each had seven kills.
"I thought what brought them out of system more was that we blocked them better," McConnaughey said. "Last time, Jenna (Delarber) had her way with us. And we were able to slow her down and block her. Their serve receive was not as good as the first time we played them. They were running their offense from off the net a lot and that takes Jenna out of their offense. Really they have nice kids but she's their go-to hitter. So that helped us I thought."