Two wins stand between Upper Sandusky and a state volleyball championship. But those are likely to be the hardest wins the program has ever had to pick up.
The Rams face Versailles Friday at noon in a Division III state semifinal at Wright State University's Nutter Center. The winner of that match plays the winner of Gates Mills Gilmour Academy-West Lafayette Ridgewood Saturday for the state championship.
Upper Sandusky had not made it past districts in the program's history. Now it sits on the cusp of a championship.
The Upper Sandusky volleyball team poses with the regional championship trophy after beating Coldwater in a Division III regional final Saturday at Lake High School in Millbury. The Rams play Versailles Friday at noon in a state semifinal at Wright State University.
Upper Sandusky’s Jenna Holly digs a ball during Saturday’s regional championship match in Millbury.
"It's an historic occasion for the girls. We've had other programs that have made state appearances, but it's the first one for the volleyball team," said Upper Sandusky coach Matthew McConnaughey. "They're very excited about it. A lot of my girls play club, so they've competed on big stages ... Hopefully the scope of the match will not cause too many nerves or anything like that."
Versailles plays in the Midwest Athletic Conference, one of the premier athletic leagues in the state. Other teams that come out of the MAC include Marion Local, which plays today in a Division IV state semifinal, and Coldwater, the team Upper Sandusky beat in last Saturday's regional championship match.
"We're very very fortunate to have the competition, the intensity and quality of games that we see during our regular season," said Versailles coach Karla Frilling. "If it weren't for that, we can attribute a lot of our strength to the fact we do see that competition throughout the year. We're very fortunate to play in that kind of league to prepare us for not only for the competition, but the pressure that come with a that competition and how to work through it."
Frilling also says is speaks of what kind of program Upper Sandusky has knowing it has already vanquished one MAC foe.
"We know they have some height, they run a quick offense and they're a strong team," Frilling said of the Rams. "They took Coldwater, who is one of our MAC - Midwest Athletic Conference - contenders, and took them into five sets. That's really saying something about the quality of the program they have at Upper Sandusky."
When it comes to listing the keys to moving on, each coach stressed the importance of playing their own style of match.
"We're going to have to have good ball control," Frilling said. "We're going to have to be able to keep our offense at the tempo that we play best at, and also to get it beyond their front line. We're going have to work on our tempo. We slow things down when we're out of system a little bit, as most teams do. So were going to have to make sure our ball control is in tact so we can stray aggressive on that front line. We know they bring a lot of height to the table, so we'll have to contend with some height and not take away some aggression in our offense."
"We need to be able to play our game. We need to receive-serve well and we need to move ball around on offense," McConnaughey countered. "I think obviously they are probably going to key on Taylor (Graboski) since she's pretty well known. I have other kids that can put the ball down. I think we need to move the ball around so it's hard for them to set up a blocking scheme.
"We have to not be focused on the moment. We can't be swept away by venue and occasion. We just need to focus on the game and play our kind of game. Third thing is, mainly Versailles is an outside-hitting team. We need to set our defense to try to deal with that as much as possible."
Graboski, a Valparaiso commit, is the unquestioned leader of the Rams. The team's only senior, Graboski has put down 355 kills on the year, totaled 58 blocks and picked up 215 digs.
"She's the heart and soul of my team," McConnaughey said. "She's one of the most dominant hitters in Ohio. ... One of the kids that every coach would like to have. Her only weakness is that she wasn't born a twin. She is the foundation of our attack, and more importantly, as a captain, she's a leader. If she's on and feeling good and encouraging, then the rest of the team is too. She's one of the kids that lifts everyone around her."
Graboski is joined in the offense by sophomores Jessi Holly (308 kills) and Molly Owens (197 kills). All three are listed at 6-2. McConnaughey says those three combine with outside hitter Kalene Johnson (167 kills) and setter Emma Smith (882 assists) for a potent offense.
"It's a good problem to have kids that are that tall," he said. "I have three girls that are 6-2. I have girl that is 5-10. My 5-7 setter, even though she's short, she has a 27-inch vertical. ... Because of our height we can change people's offense. We can change how they hit the ball, make it easier for our defense to pick the ball up. We have kids that can finish, that can terminate."
Versailles counters with a dangerous offense of its own. The Tigers lean on Amanda Winner (344 kills) and Lauren Bruns (300 kills) for a bulk of their offense.
"Amanda Winner is a 4-year letter winner, led us in kills every year during regular season," Frilling said. "She's our go-to person. She also plays back row, plays all the way around. "She brings a quality of experience and leadership onto the court. Lauren Bruns ... brings same quality in offense to the team as well."
Whereas Upper Sandusky has only one senior on the team, Versailles has six. Frilling says the group is a big reason why the Tigers are where they are.
"I'm really proud of the girls that we've made it this far and our accomplishments so far," she said. "We have six seniors on the team this year. One of our strengths is definitely a strong group of leaders. They are very determined, and have managed to carve the way for us throughout the season. This was one of their goals, to make it to state. As far as they're concerned, the job isn't done yet."
The teams come into Friday's game with matching 25-2 records. Versailles was ranked third in the state in the final coaches' poll, Upper Sandusky sixth. But both coaches agree that the numbers aren't going to mean much when the teams step on the Nutter Center floor.
"At this point, all the teams are very solid," McConnaughey said. "Versailles is a extremely tough team that makes few mistakes. I like my chances. But, all the teams that are left are very competitive. So basically, it will be whoever's match that shows up and deals with adversity the best."