Living the dream
MILLBURY – “It’s a dream come true,” said Taylor Graboski.
“It’s the best moment of my life,” added Ceidyer Neiderkohr.
The Upper Sandusky volleyball players described their emotions in many different ways, but after Saturday, there’s only one way to describe the Rams: Regional champions.
In the Division III regional championship at Millbury, Upper Sandusky won a five-game thriller against Coldwater, 27-25, 21-25, 25-18, 20-25, 15-10, sending the Rams to the state semifinals.
“Its the first time it’s ever happened. It hasn’t sunk in yet,” said Upper Sandusky coach Matthew McConnaughey. “It feels amazing. I’m glad the girls lived up to their potential and fought through some adversity. It’s a great feeling, great win for us.”
The Rams have already rewritten the school’s record books, becoming the first team to make it to regionals. But, the final chapter hasn’t been written yet as they are one of the four teams left in the hunt for a Division III state championship.
Upper Sandusky – ranked No. 6 in the state in the final coaches poll – will play No. 3 Versailles at noon Friday in a state semifinal at Wright State University in Fairborn.
“There aren’t even words for how I feel right now,” said setter Emma Smith. “I’m sure my team feels the same way. We’re really thankful for this.”
“It’s feel amazing. We’re the first team from our school ever to go,” added Jessi Holly.
Jessi’s sister Jenna said that was a factor in driving the team to get the win Saturday.
“We’ve never been anywhere past district semifinals,” she said. “We had an opportunity to go as far as we could. That’s why I thought we did so good, because we kept pushing and pushing, and to try and do better and get as far as we can, cause we knew we could do it.”
After a back-and-forth afternoon, the teams stood even at two games with one game to 15 to decide who would move on.
“I think we all knew what we had to do,” Graboski said of the mood before the team took the floor for the deciding game. “We were excited. We were so close with a game to 15. I think it just overcame us and we all played our guts out and it turned out in our favor.”
It was only the third time this year Upper Sandusky has gone five games. The first was a regular season match against Buckeye Central that propelled the Rams to the North Central Conference championship. The second was last Saturday’s district championship match against Mohawk.
“That’s what I stressed in the huddle before we got on the floor,” McConnaughey said. “Buckeye Central. Mohawk. You came out and sticked them right in the mouth. That’s what you have to do. You have to attack at the beginning and we did that again.”
Upper Sandusky held an early 4-3 advantage. But then the Rams went on a run that likely landed them in the Final Four. Maddie Bianchi hit the service line and the points quickly piled up. Before Coldwater could respond, the lead escalated to 11-3.
“I felt good about that because I missed so many serves in the beginning. It felt good to get that back with so many big serves,” Bianchi said. “I was really feeling good about that game. We really took off in a good lead.”
Kalene Johnson had nine kills on the afternoon, three of which came in the opening stages of the fifth game.
“We can’t do anything without passing though,” she said. “Our passing was great. Everybody was working hard to make everything work.”
Coldwater didn’t fold the tent, though. The Cavaliers rallied to get within 12-9, causing the Rams to sweat it out.
“The crowd was getting their money’s worth, that’s for sure,” Graboski said. “Those are the games you want to play in because, you can just feel everything in you makes you want to keep going and finish the game out.”
For Upper Sandusky’s Ali Roeder, it was a matter of staying mentally focused, and knowing her team could close out the match.
“I never really get too discouraged, because I know we can go out and if we want something we can get it,” she said. “I feel like we’re so mentally strong, we can do anything, get anywhere we want.”
The teams exchanged points, then Jessi Holly got a crucial kill to set up championship-point, which Coldwater never was able to return back over the net.
“We have so many people on our team that are a big part of it,” McConnaughey said. “We have many ways we can score. So they came through. It worked out in the end.
The jubilation on Upper Sandusky’s side of the floor was contrasted on Coldwater’s side as the Cavaliers closed their season with a 23-4 record.
“It’s disappointing because we didn’t give them a fight in the fifth game,” said Coldwater coach Mike Etzler. “We gave them freeball, after freeball, after downball. You can’t do that against a team like that. They ate it up. We dug ourselves too much of a hole . We fought … but it was way too late. You can’t get down like that. We didn’t give ourselves a fighting chance in that fifth game.”
The match opened with a classic first game as each team fought to get the upper hand. The game was tied and 17 points with the lead changing hands seven times. Each team fought off a game-point but a back-row kill from Graboski kicked off three-straight Upper Sandusky points to end the game and give the Rams the early match lead.
“At this point in the season, for me this match was about who wanted it more, who could work through adversity,” McConnaughey said. “Nobody’s perfect; everybody’s going to make mistakes. Overall we pulled through it and did it again.”
Graboski put down 22 kills to lead Upper Sandusky. Jessi Holly added 14 and Molly Owens chipped in 11.
Holly said it was a challenge at times, getting around Coldwater’s front row.
“I just had to hit around their block, hit my angles, tip over them,” she said. “They’re a great blocking team.”
Owens added that a big reason why the offense is successful is the play of the back-row and the setter, Emma Smith, who set up the hitters for their attacks.
“I love my back row and setter,” Owens said. “I can’t believe some of the balls they get up. I’m so excited. I’m proud to be a part of a team thats this well-rounded and this talented.”
Owens didn’t specify any particular instance of a back-row player making any save, but she, like everyone else in the gym, had to be in awe of one save Neiderkohr made late in the first game.
Scrambling to save a ball from hitting the ground, Neiderkohr already was on the ground and had only one thing she could do: kick at it. She punted the ball back over the net in play. Even though Upper Sandusky went on to lose the point, the play provided an early spark.
“I don’t know; it was just the first thing that came to my head,” she said. “I just slid for it and I had to kick at it. I just was hoping it’d go over.”
A year from now, Graboski will be suiting up for Valparaiso, smashing balls at a Division I college level. But arguably the best player in Upper Sandusky isn’t ready to hang up the orange and black just yet. She isn’t ready to wake up from a dream season.
“I hope not,” she said. “I hope that we can take it all the way but we have to do it one game at a time. Started out with 198 teams, now there’s just four. We have try to outwork and do whatever we can in our power to do our best and that’s all we can ask for.”