Big Red, Redskins eliminated in Class 5A semifinals at Park

EFFORT PLAY — Steubenville’s Sammi Cucarese goes for the ball during the OVAC Class 5A semifinals against University on Tuesday. -Kyle Lutz

WHEELING — With strong play at the net, both on offense and defense, Wheeling Park’s first trip to the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference volleyball tournament turned into a berth in the championship round Tuesday night.

Rachel Simon, Leah Gaudinoand Ally Fanko combined for 30 kills, and the Patriots came from behind to record a 26-24 first game win, before cruising 25-14, 25-15 in the ensuing two games to sweep past Indian Creek in a Class 5A semifinal match at the Palace on the Hill.

Coach Samantha Gentle’s top-seeded, 11-3 Park squad advances to Saturday’s 11:30 a.m. championship match at Union Local against second-seeded University. The Hawks swept past Steubenville, 25-21, 25-21, 25-22 in the other semifinal at Wheeling Park.

The schools have split their two previous meetings this season, with the Patriots winning in five games on the hill.

“This is the school’s first trip to the OVAC tournament, and the entire Wheeling Park community is so excited and proud,” Gentle said. “This is a great group of girls, and they really deserve this.”

Indian Creek took an early lead in Game 1 before Wheeling Park rallied to go up 10-4 on seven-consecutive points with Caylin Angel holding service. However, Coach Molly Wilson’s Redskins (10-10) battled back with a nine-point run of their own to grab the lead back at 18-17.

The teams traded the lead three other times, with Indian Creek actually sitting at game-point with a 24-22 advantage at one point. But, Fanko recorded a kill and then kept service, before a Leah Gaudino completed the come-back with a 26-24 verdict.

In all, Game 1 produced five lead changes, four of those coming late, and five ties.

The Redskins once again took an early lead in Game 2 before the teams traded ties and leads until Park took control on another Fanko kill that gave them the lead for good at 11-10.

It was still a 16-13 Patriots lead before the hosts finished things off with a 9-1 run that produced a 25-14 final.

Game 3 also was close and back-and-forth early on before Wheeling Park used an Indian Creek mistake to take the lead for good at 7-6. Another Patriots’ run, this time 9-0, helped them take control before cruising to the finish line and a three-game sweep.

“Our girls definitely dominated the net (Tuesday),” Gentle said. “I think our hitters really built their confidence level after getting rid of the butterflies following the first game. They hit the ball hard all night.

“We really stepped it up on defense, as well, and just did not let the ball drop, while our service receive passes were beautiful.”

It wasn’t hard for Wilson to figure out where things started going wrong for her Redskins.

“As soon as we lost that first game, we lost the momentum and it just never came back to us,” Wilson said. “We have been working on keeping momentum and making runs, but we struggled with it (Tuesday). Hopefully, it is something we can fix before sectionals.

“I think we will take the next week to really work hard on being aggressive and loud as a time and trying to push things forward.”

The other semifinal produced a special night for University in more ways than one.

After winning the OVAC big-school championship in 2015, the Hawks have been knocked off in the semifinals in each of the past three campaigns. And, while advancing to its second championship match, University also awarded long-time head coach Don Godfrey with his 400th career victory.

“I’ve kind of kept that low-key,” Godfrey said. “The girls, parents and school aren’t even aware of it yet, but it is something that is very special to me.”

It only took three games to get to that cherished victory, however, coach Kristin Taylor’s Big Red pushed them to the limit the entire way.

University (12-3) jumped to a quick 8-0 lead in the first game before Big Red (12-8) used a 9-1 run a short time later to take a 12-11 lead on an Anna Taylor ace. The Hawks again moved out to a four-point lead at 16-12, but once again Steubenville battled back, scoring the next four points to knot the score on Sammie Cucarese’s ace.

Godfrey’s squad used a 4-0 swing to take a 24-19 lead a short time later before Sierra Lanham’s tap found nothing but floor to end the 25-21 victory.

University scored the initial three points in Game 2 and, while Big Red eventually evened the score at 4-4, the Hawks never trailed again after taking a 5-4 lead. The lead grew to as many as seven along the way before a 5-0 Steubenville rally late in the game cut the deficit to 22-20.

A Big Red serve into the net ended things with another 25-21 score.

The Hawks seemed to be in control again in Game 3, leading by as many as six at the midway point before Steubenville made a late run, scoring seven-consecutive points with Kiera O’Brien serving to battle back. The Jefferson County club actually took the lead at 20-19 and again at 22-21 on a Taylor tap.

However, University again took control late, scoring the final four points of the game, with Mallory Napolillo’s kill sending the Hawks back to the finals.

“They kept battling back every time we got a nice little lead, but our girls hung in there and were able to get it done,” Godfrey said. “Our two seniors 23 (Ashten Boggs) and 35 (Napolillo) have been getting it done at the net all season long, and they kept it going (Tuesday).

“We managed to keep a comfortable lead at times but still had to play strong at the end in all three games. My comfort zone is a lead of five or more. I was worried about that third game because teams have a tendency to let up a little after winning the first two and then anything can happen.

Kristin Taylor admitted that not knowing much about the Hawks may have been a problem for Big Red.

“For some reason we started out timid,” she said. “We just weren’t the aggressive team that we have been all season. I don’t know if that is because we haven’t faced them before or not, but I felt like we made some progress and got more confidence as the games went on.

“At times these games looked like a tennis match to me and not volleyball. You can’t win games without putting the ball in play. You win with the other team making errors, and unfortunately for us we made more errors (Tuesday).”

OVAC Class 5A Semifinals

Wheeling Park d. Indian Creek 26-24, 25-14, 25-15

I: Mazzaferro 7 kills, 1 block, 1 dig, 5 aces; Penner 3 kills, 1 ace, 6 assists; Starkey 9 assists, 2 digs; Jones 1 kill, 1 assist, 4 blocks, 1 ace; Francis 1 kill, 3 blocks.

W: Angel 3 aces; Fanko 8 kills, 11 digs; Ritz 31 assists; Simon 14 kills; Gaudino 8 kills.

University d. Steubenville 25-21, 25-21, 25-22

S: O’Brien 12 points, 3 aces, 2 kills; Taylor 10 points, 5 aces, 9 kills, 8 digs; M.Cucarese 6 points, 3 aces, 3 kills, 4 digs; Abram 3 points, 5 kills, 5 blocks.

U: Shockley 17 kills, 18 assists; Napolillo 15 kills; Kadder 12 kills; Gain 8 kills; Tasker 8 kills.


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