Senecas meet the Panthers in state semifinal

PHOTO BY STEVE WILLIAMS Calvert's Zoe Meyer sends the ball over the net against the defense of an Ayersville player Nov. 1 in Elida during a Division IV regional semifinal match.

It will be an unfamiliar feeling for both teams today, but it will be the same one.

Calvert and Portsmouth Clay are playing at the state tournament for the first time today in a Division IV semifinal at the Nutter Center on the Campus of Wright State.

The match starts at noon with the second semifinal between Monroeville and New Bremen set to begin the other semifinal at 2 p.m.

The run for Calvert has been surprising to some, but not to members of the team or first-year coach Lori Rombach.

“I honestly believed that this team could do great things this season. I thought the thing that might be our biggest problem would be us not buying into each other as teammates,” Rombach said. “And when we played Mohawk (district final), when I saw them buy in between teammates, it felt good. (Mohawk coach) Eric Hoover sent me a text that said: ‘If your girls play as loose and aggressive as they did against us, they could go all the way.’

“I felt when I read that text, it was the validation I needed for what I thought for a while. Hearing that validated what I’ve been saying to myself and to my husband for months. I knew we could do some special things, but I hoped the kids believed it too.”

Senior Lexie White said it took a little bit for it to sink in of the history she and her teammates made Saturday, but as soon as she got to look at her phone, it started to.

“Definitely after the game Saturday I was feeling super excited and it didn’t seem like it was real because that was the first time in Calvert history,” White said of earning a trip to state. “My Facebook and social media was definitely blowing up, which is awesome. The support the Calvert community has given us has been awesome and even former coaches that I’ve had have shown support.

“Even though we are going to state, we aren’t settling for anything. We are going for a state title. We are going to enjoy our time down there and embrace the ride.”

The Senecas navigated their season well with a Sandusky Bay Conference River Division title and just a couple losses with a tough schedule with matches including bigger powerhouses like Norwalk and Holy Name. Playing tough competition and even coming out on top has benefitted them to this point.

“There was a point in the season where we went off of the state rankings,” Rombach said. “I called (OHSVCA official) Mary Tarka and asked her if there was mistake or something, and she said there wasn’t so it kind of made me angry.

“Those polls and rankings don’t mean a lot in the end, but we fed off that. I just want to see the girls have fun and if the wins come, that’s just icing on the cake. They are having fun and it’s beautiful to see.”

Calvert has a nice mesh of upperclassmen with a few freshmen that contribute. Offensively, the Senecas like to spread the ball around and have hitters all over the court. Ashlyn Jones leads the team with 204 kills, while White has 200 and Zoe Meyer (168), Kate Rombach (147) and Emma White (133) also are contributing. Freshman Emma White leads the Senecas in serving with 61 aces. Jones backs her with 55 and Lexie White had 43.

But throughout the tournament, Calvert’s block has been impressive keeping big hitters in check from Mohawk and Leipsic. Meyer has 138 total blocks, while Lila Gehring has 57. Senior Shelby Hemminger leads the team in digs with 373, while Lexie White has 283, Jones adds 281 and Emma White has 209. Emma White also leads the squad in assists with 455, but splitting that duty is senior Sophie Burtis with 360.

Despite there being a mix of ages and grade levels on the court for the Senecas, they have stuck together this season and thrived.

“There are different age groups on this team, but we all come together and have a job on this team,” Burtis said. “Whether its not playing very much or in the starting lineup. Everyone comes here to work for one goal. I think during games and practices we don’t really see the senior vs freshmen thing, we are a family and we stand united and I think that’s how we’ve been so successful.”

Coach Rombach added: “I pressed and pressed on these senior leaders to hold each other and the rest of the team accountable and that was hard in the beginning of the season,” she said. “We had some girls not showing up for practice and the older girls didn’t step up and say ‘lets go’. I think to be a great team, we needed to hold each other accountable and they have begun doing that, which makes my job a lot easier.

“I feel like the sister dynamic helps. We have two sister pairs and a pair of first cousins and I think that helps. We have two seniors that have sisters that are freshmen and I think that helps them think they are not freshmen. Some of our freshmen are key contributors on the court and the upperclassmen have a respect for that. We wouldn’t be where we are now without the hands of Emma White and the kills from Kate Rombach and the termination from Ashlyn Jones against Mohawk and having Mallary Nielsen doing what she did on the right side against Madi Chester.”

There are some similarities between Calvert and Clay, one being the records with both at 24-3 this season. The other is that it has multiple hitters, but the one to look out for is second-team all-Ohioan Jensen Warnock.

Warnock has a team-high 429 kills this season. She also has 50 aces and 267 digs.

“We have the same record. We have the same season record and tournament record and its both our first time down there,” Rombach said. “There are so many similarities between us. They have a girl that’s on the all-Ohio team, which is their leading hitter about 400 or so kills and two others that are pretty good as well.

“Unlike some teams we’ve faced, they look like they have a really balanced offense. From what I’ve seen from stats and things I’ve found online so far, is that I think we’ll match up well. I told the girls in order to win this game we have to do two things. We have to make fewer mistakes than they do. Secondly, we have to serve receive well. We didn’t have good serve receive against Leipsic, so we need to be better there and keep ourselves in system, but we totally can win this game.”

To win, the Senecas must keep Warnock in check, but also handle the other hitters the Panthers have, including Delanie Gilliland (284 kills), Taylor Lewis (230) and Jaelyn Warnock (113). Gilliland also has 99 aces and 142 digs, while Jaelyn Warnock has 53 aces, 16 blocks and 238 digs, Lila Brown has 52 aces, 151 digs and 869 assists. Lewis leads the Panthers in blocks with 41.

“We know they have a few very solid hitters,” Meyer said. “Obviously, they’re a great team. They’re in the Final 4. No one is getting here by accident, so we’re just gonna work hard and show up ready to play our game.

“I think we need to keep trusting in our coaches, trusting in our teammates, trusting in ourselves. Continue playing loose and aggressive. Just keep doing what we’ve been doing. What we’ve been doing has been working, obviously, so we have to keep rolling with that.”

Burtis added: “I’m looking forward to a really good game. But I am looking forward to winning. We want to make history. It’s really important we get our name up on the volleyball poster (in the gym).

“I just want to enjoy the moment. This is my senior year and I don’t even want to think about this being my last game. It’s been such a wild ride and so much fun, I really don’t want it to end. I want to keep grinding it out until we get that state title.”