Perrysburg’s Audra Appold, left, Mackenzie Pohlman, front, and Lauren Smith prepare for a serve against St. Ursula. The Yellow Jackets finished 22-3 last season. The Blade/Lori King
With the volleyball season less than three weeks old, some of northwest Ohio’s top teams are looking like solid picks to repeat their respective league championships from last fall.
At the head of that list is perennial state power St. Ursula, which last Saturday hosted and won the prestigious, eight-team Best of Ohio invitational, which featured all four Division I state semifinalists from last season.
The Arrows, who have reached at least the D-I regional in 13 of the past 14 seasons, are heavily favored to win their fourth straight Three Rivers Athletic Conference title. St. Ursula (29-1 overall, 7-0 plus playoff title in TRAC) was the No. 1 ranked team in Ohio last year, losing to Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame in the state championship match.
Also looking poised for a repeat are Perrysburg in the Northern Lakes League, Bowsher in the City League, Otsego in the Northern Buckeye Conference, and Toledo Christian in the Toledo Area Athletic Conference.
Archbold, the perennial power in the Northwest Ohio Athletic League (three state championships), had its 2013 league title chances derailed by the forfeiture of eight match victories because of the use of an ineligible player during what ended as a 14-12 season overall.
But the Blue Streaks, who ultimately reached the Division III regional semifinals, look to be the team to beat in the NWOAL, which last year was won by Evergreen.
THREE RIVERS ATHLETIC CONFERENCE
St. Ursula, which also has 3-0 match wins against Rocky River Magnificat, Chagrin Falls Kenston, Perrysburg, and Lima Senior this season, took the Best of Ohio crown by beating Walsh Jesuit (25-13, 25-14), Columbus DeSales (25-17, 25-8), and defending state champion Mount Notre Dame (25-21, 15-25, 25-19).
From their 2013 state runner-up team, the Arrows return seven players from their regular rotation, including three who earned All-Ohio honors.
Lauran Graves, a 6-foot senior middle hitter, was named to the All-Ohio first team, Maurissa Leonard, a 5-4 defensive specialist, was a second-team selection, and Jamye Cox, a 5-3 sophomore libero who has already committed to play at Michigan State, was honorable mention.
St. Ursula also brings back 6-3 junior Liz Coil (MH), 6-0 senior Morgan Finn (right-side hitter), senior Ryann Cox (DS), and versatile 5-8 junior Emily Lydey (setter).
Lydey is currently out of action after suffering a stress fracture to her back during summer volleyball.
The new faces in the rotation include seniors Megan Burns (DS) and Erica Schiets (S), and juniors Mckenna Jordan (OH), Kerrigan McVicker (OH), and Stephanie Sylvester (S).
If the Arrows get any challenge at all in TRAC play, it would take a major upset as St. Ursula has never lost in 31 TRAC contests. Central Catholic, Clay, Notre Dame, and Findlay should all contend for second place.
“This a real balanced team but they’re very eager to work to get better every day,” coach John Buck said. “I think we’re capable of having a very successful season and playing at a high level for a long period of time.
”We’re still trying to quicken up our offense. We’re still a little too slow on our attack. “But I believe that this team has some unfinished business. We’re not taking anything for granted, because there’s a lot of people who want to knock you off before you get there [to state tournament].”
Last season represented St. Ursula’s 10th appearance in the state final four, all since 2000. The Arrow won state titles in 2004 and 2010, and were runners-up in 2000, 2005, 2011, and last year.
Bowsher has won the last three City League volleyball championships, and although coach Stewart Jesse’s team graduated 10 seniors from a squad that went 18-6, 10-0 a year ago, the Rebels have enough returning talent to be favored for a fourth straight crown.
“Our goal is to win the City League and go as far as we can in the playoffs,” Jesse said. “The key to our season is to not just win in the City League, but to really develop our offense.”
The Rebels are led by 5-5 libero Jordan Murray, who is on the Under Armour All-American seniors to watch list for Ohio, according to Jesse. The other starters returning are seniors Katelyn Barnes (OH), Salvina Pirone (DS), and Emily Ruddy (RS).
Bowsher has opened the season 2-1, 1-0 CL.
NORTHERN LAKES LEAGUE
Perrysburg, which finished 22-3 with a loss to St. Ursula in last year’s district final, swept to a 14-0 record in capturing the Northern Lakes League championship.
Fifth-year Yellow Jackets coach Jamie Babcock also returns a significant portion of her regular rotation, including one player who opened the season sidelined by an injury.
Back to lead the Jackets is 6-1 senior outside hitter Audra Appold, who was a third-team All-Ohio selection last season.
The other rotation returnees are seniors Savannah Miller (5-11, OH), Mackenzie Pohlman (5-10, MH), Shannon Fastnacht (6-0, MH), and Alyssa Young (5-9, DS).
Appold and Pohlman are each third-year regulars, and Miller, Fastnacht, and Young are second-year starters. Young was recently cleared to return to practice after rehabbing from a torn ACL.
“Whenever you’re coming off a successful season I think that momentum carries over,” Babcock said of the team’s first NLL title in 19 years. “It’s kind of inspiring for the next group coming in because they want to uphold that title and that same level of play.
“I think they have the potential to do the same, if not more than last year, just because we have experience at key positions on the floor. They have been there and done this before. Mentally, we have to stay on point. Physically, we’re very competitive but we have to stay out of our own way and keep focused on our goals, and take it one match at a time.”
Babcock’s new rotation members include senior Morgan Hefner (DS), and juniors Lauren Smith (setter), Veronica Mielcarek (DS), and Taylin Hunter (RS-MH).
Anthony Wayne and Bowling Green are seen as Perrysburg’s top obstacles in the bid to repeat in the NLL.
NORTHERN BUCKEYE CONFERENCE
Cheryl Jones, in her 30th year at Otsego, is the dean of volleyball coaches in the NBC. She knows the heights of the game with a 1992 Division III state championship.
Her Knights may not be a state title contender this season, but they are a reasonable choice to repeat as conference champions following a 20-5 finish (13-1 NBC) last season.
Otsego has six players back in its regular rotation.
Returning for the Knights are seniors Kylie Asmus (libero), Mallory Beach (MH), and Abby Hesselschwardt (OH), who are all third-year letter winners, as is junior Lauren Wynn (OH). Other junior returnees are second-year letter winners Mac Varner (setter) and Morgan Smoyer (MH). Hesselschwardt was first team All-NBC in 2013.
“The girls have a wealth of experience playing together,” Jones said, “and they know each others strengths and limitations. When they talk and move, they cook like Crisco.
“The keys to our season is to have the girls step outside the boat — out of their comfort zone — and push themselves and their teammates to a higher standard, and not settle. They are a very talented group of girls who love volleyball, and they need to let that enthusiasm and passion shine.”
Other contenders for the title look to be Elmwood and Eastwood, with Rossford and Genoa likely candidates to compete for a spot in the upper half of the standings.
Eastwood, last year’s NBC runner-up at 12-2, was hit hard by graduation. But the youthful Eagles are off to a 5-1 start overall.
TOLEDO AREA ATHLETIC CONFERENCE
Toledo Christian underwent a coaching change last season, as former Bedford assistant Buffy Ruddy succeeded interim coach Danae Wedge, who had taken over in 2012 for Dave Conley (now at Clay).
The Eagles didn’t miss a beat, posting a 24-3 record (12-0 TAAC), winning their fifth conference title, and advancing to within one victory of reaching the Division IV state semifinals for the third time in school history.
TC uses a seven-player regular rotation composed of all juniors and sophomores.
Leading that group is 5-11 junior Hannah Paul (MH), who was the TAAC player of the year in 2013. The other juniors are Sam Korn (DS-OH), Kate Lindke (S), Abbie Toland (libero), and Grace Burket (OH). The sophomores in the rotation are Bailey Korn (OH) and Annie Kempton (MH-OH). The only senior is sub Bethany Kollmorgen (OH).
The Eagles will be joined at midseason by talented 6-0 junior Callie Drage (OH-MH), a transfer from Anthony Wayne who was forced to sit out the first 11 matches because of Ohio High School Athletic Association transfer bylaws.
Since the prior two state trips were made by TC in 2006 and 2010, could the Eagles be ready to continue that four-year pattern?
“They definitely have the drive and the work ethic and the talent, it’s just a matter of putting it all together at the right time,” Ruddy said. “But that’s definitely a goal of ours — winning a state title. We talk about it every day.
“The core of this junior group has been starting since they were freshmen, so even though they are still considered a younger team they are very experienced. Many of them also play club ball, so they’ve made it a year-round sport. They’ve done a real nice job and they have excellent chemistry.”
Last season the Eagles reached the regional final. They are using that near-miss as inspiration.
“I took the girls down to the state tournament after we lost in regionals, and we watched,” Ruddy said. “I think they thought, ‘OK, we can do that. We need to be here.’ That’s been a goal ever since then. They got a taste of what they were aiming for.
“Our key will be defensive effort for sure. We try to outlast a lot of teams with our defensive play. We do have some offensive weapons, but we play tenacious defense and really try to wear people out that way.”
NORTHWEST OHIO ATHLETIC LEAGUE
No program in the NWOAL carries as much prestige statewide as Archbold, which reached the state final four 12 times under former coach Char Sharp, including Class A state titles in 1978 and 1981, a Division III state title in 1998, and four state runner-up finishes.
Coach Kylie Rufenacht’s Blue Streaks are still highly competitive, having advanced to the D-III regional semifinals last year despite a midseason glitch that cost them an NWOAL championship.
Inadvertent use of an ineligible player led to Archbold forfeiting eight match victories, leading to a deceiving 14-12 overall record, and enabling Evergreen (18-5, 7-1) to win the league crown.
Archbold’s regular rotation returns seniors Cassidy Williams (S-RS), Cayla Walker (OH), Natalie Rupp (MH), Megan Miller (DS), Erin Erbskorn (DS), and Peyton Driver (DS). New to the Streaks’ rotation are senior Winter Fricke (S), junior Allie McQuade (MH), and sophomores Morgan Miller (RS), and Alyssa Ziegler (OH-S).
“We have a solid group of girls returning from last year,” Rufenacht said. “They know the game and work well together. We are more defensively balanced this year, and maybe not quite as offensively aggressive as other years.
“But I feel the girls are working together and relying on each other as a team, and not as much individually. We are looking to compete for a league title this year and to also make a decent tournament run.”
Chief competition for the NWOAL crown will likely come from Evergreen. Swanton and Delta should also be competitive.