Senecas keep on rolling into the state title match

Calvert sweeps Clay 3-0 and extends set win streak to 15

PHOTO BY JILL GOSCHE Calvert's Ashlyn Jones (9) jumps to send the ball over the net during the state semifinal match against Portsmouth Clay at Wright State University's Nutter Center Thursday afternoon.

FAIRBORN — The venues keep getting bigger. The crowds are louder.

The stakes? Higher.

But Calvert just keeps rolling.

The Senecas looked anything but rattled in their first state volleyball appearance, using a 14-0 run against Portsmouth Clay to win Game 1, and then motoring to another sweep.

Calvert improved to 25-3 by downing the Panthers 25-10, 25-13, 25-16 in the Division IV state semifinal at the Nutter Center. It will play for the program’s first state title at 11 a.m. Saturday against the 2017 state champion, New Bremen. The Cardinals rallied from a 2-0 deficit in Thursday’s second semifinal match to beat Monroeville.

It’s hard to imagine a team coming into a final with more momentum than the Senecas. They not only have won their last seven matches, but have emerged victorious in 15 consecutive sets. That stretch includes four consecutive sweeps, all in the postseason.

The Senecas were led by freshman Emma White, who had nine kills, four assists and eight digs.

“As a freshman, I’m gonna remember this forever, especially playing with my sister (Lexie),” White said. “Knowing that every game can be the last, you really want to fight for that. At the end of the day, kills, aces, assists are everything, but it’s really who you play with, how you play, and how you feel when you’re done. And this whole season, our noses have been in it the whole time.”

Calvert and Clay played a tight first set to start and the Panthers led 8-7. But then two things happened.

* Calvert played great defense, and the Panthers’ left side hitters — where the ball was continually going — were ineffective.

* Clay was continually called for held ball violations.

In the first game alone, the Panthers were whistled eight times for the foul, resulting in key Calvert points.

After the match, it was Clay coach Sarah Hammond who was crying foul.

“If you have an all-Ohio setter (Lila Brown) on your team, and they call it 10, 12 times in a row there, it ruins your momentum for the game when she hadn’t been called on it all year long,” Hammond said. “That definitely gave Tiffin the momentum from there on out.”

Emma White had three kills in the gigantic run that followed, while Zoe Meyer collected four. And Sophie Burtis seemed to get tougher with every serve.

“It was magical, it was wonderful,” said Senecas coach Lori Rombach. “I’ve never seen Sophie serve so aggressively. So, as a coach, I’m like, ‘Where’s that been all year?’ Beautiful.’ She settled in. When an athlete settles in, and they feel confident and relaxed, that’s what happens.”

Burtis finished with 18 assists and five digs, with an ace.

“Sophie is the heart of our team; she’s a great leader,” Rombach said. “We all respond well when we see that out of her.”

That momentum carried over to Game 2. The Senecas jumped out to an 8-4 advantage, only to see the Panthers score four straight points to tie it.

But Calvert scored five straight points, and an 11-3 stretch — punctuated by a Lexie White kill — removed most of the doubt.

Rombach wasn’t about to let her players relax. She knew that Clay had rallied from a two-set deficit in its district final against Fairfield.

But her players knew it, too.

“You better believe in our huddle after the first two games, one of our senior captains, she said that,” Rombach said. “She said,,’We can not give them an opportunity. We cannot give them a chance.'”

They didn’t.

The third set was more of the same. A 7-2 Calvert spurt started things, and though Clay got within 7-5 and 13-10, Calvert again dominated the second half of the set, and took off. Ashlyn Jones — who Rombach singled out for her defensive effort in the match — served an ace to give the Senecas a 24-16 edge. One point later, Calvert was set for Saturday.

Jones finished with four kills, three assists and 14 digs. Lexie White had seven kills and nine digs. And Zoe Meyer added six kills while Shelby Hemminger registered 10 digs.

Once again, “momentum” was the word of the day.

And again, the players and Rombach tried to explain the set winning streak, which is growing by the match.

“I think it’s like, when we’re getting ready for the game, we’re all in,” Lexie White said. “Every single set matters. It’s awesome.”

But Rombach said not to be fooled. The Senecas aren’t a sweep-only squad.

“No coach comes in and says we’re gonna win it in three,” she said. “That’s not really the goal.

“It’s a beautiful thing to win in three, it really is,” Rombach said. “But I can tell you — I told you this before. This team is gritty. We can win in three, I trust they can win in four, and I have complete confidence if it’s a battle in five, we’re conditioned for it … I believe we can finish in five, too.”

Clay finished 24-4. Jenson Warnock and Delanie Gilliland led the Panthers with seven kills each. Brown had 22 assists. Shae Vassar delivered 18 digs, and Clay teammate Skylar Artis had 17.

“It definitely didn’t go our way today, but I’m super-proud of my girls for an awesome season,” Hammond said. “We just want to wish Tiffin luck on Saturday.”

Rombach was asked what she would have thought if someone told her at the beginning of the season that the team was playing for a state championship.

“I 100 percent would have believed you. I would have,” she said. “I’m an eternal optimist, and because I’m an eternal optimist I would have said, ‘Oh, that’s great!'”

But Emma White admitted she was a little surprised.

“We expected to go far, but just to say that we’re making it to the state finals is absolutely crazy,” she said.

And it’s going to get crazier Saturday.