By Josh Brown
FAIRBORN — When they were younger, Miami East juniors Jonni Parker and Kyndall Hellyer watched the Viking volleyball team capture back-to-back state titles in 2011 and 2012.
“We looked up to those girls,” Parker said. “Now? We are those girls.”
In a rematch of last year’s Division III state semifinal matchup, Miami East avenged last season’s loss and defeated Gilmour Academy in four sets, 25-20, 25-18, 4-25, 25-12 Friday at Wright State’s Nutter Center to advance to Saturday’s state championship game — the Vikings’ third-ever trip to the final round in four trips to state.
“You can tell this team is coming into its own,” said first-year head coach Dan Peterson, an assistant with last year’s team. “They’ve always had this cloud over their head — you’ve got to make it back to the state semifinal, you’ve got to get to the title game, you’ve got to win the title. Slowly this season, I think you’ve seen them break that pressure. They’re doing this their way. The tradition is there, and we’ve talked a lot this year about living up to greatness. And that’s what they’ve done so far.”
Miami East (24-5) will play Tuscarawas Valley Saturday for the state title. The Trojans, making their eighth appearance at the state tournament but only their second trip to the championship match, rallied after losing the first set to defeat Sparta Highland 3-1. Gilmour Academy’s season ends at 23-5.
The teams remained tight early in the first set, going through a feeling-out period that included 10 ties, with a Kyndall Hellyer kill evening up the score at 16-16. An error by Gilmour and another kill on a short ball by Hellyer gave the Vikings an 18-16 lead, and a blast by Jonni Parker after a block by Hellyer on a hit by Katie Forsythe gave Miami East the biggest lead for either team to that point at 20-17, and after an ace by Megan Brzozowski cut the lead to 21-20, Gabrielle Hawkins served the final three points of the set, with a Parker kill putting it away, 25-20.
“We’re okay with going back and forth a little like that,” Peterson said. “There was that feeling-out period for both teams, but this is a more mature team than last year when we faced them. These girls can take a lot more thrown at them. Once we got into a groove, we kind of took control. We’re okay with lead changes, we’re even okay with losing the first set, though we don’t like to.
“They’re a different team than last year, and so are we. You’ve got to figure out your opponent a bit.”
That groove continued in the second set, too. A service run of three straight points by Gabrielle Hawkins gave the Vikings a 6-2 edge early in Game 2, then a seven-point run by Carly Gump — one that included two aces and two kills by Hellyer — gave East an 11-point edge at 17-6.
“I think you saw Carly and our freshman Gabrielle step in and put some serves right where we wanted them,” Peterson said. “We were very aggressive with our serve today.”
But once they built that big lead, the Vikings began to slip a little without the opposition pushing back as hard.
That lead held steady at 22-12 before a four-point Gilmour run cut the lead to 22-16. Miami East held set point at 24-16 but committed a pair of errors before a Hellyer kill capped off a long rally to give the Vikings the game, 25-18, and a 2-0 lead — and putting them one game away from the state title game.
“As a team, we did get a little too comfortable,” Parker said. “We relaxed a little, and it definitely carried over into the third set.”
The Lancers bounced back in a big way in Game 3, taking a 19-0 lead before the Vikings finally won a point. Forsythe served all 19 points, including three aces and a kill by the Gilmour junior, and Miami East held onto its 2-1 lead despite losing the game 25-4.
“No, we’re used to being the punisher, not the victim,” Peterson said of the set when asked if they’d had one like it all season. “Dublin Coffman beat us pretty bad, but we got to double digits in all of those.”
The difference in the match, as it has been in big matches all season for the Vikings, was how the team responded.
“I liked our response in the fourth,” Parker said. “They told us to take a deep breath, that that did happen — but also that it was behind us now, and to keep moving forward.”
Parker took over the match to begin the fourth set. A kill and a block along with Reagan Morrett put East up early, then an eight-point service run by Hawkins — a run that included four more kills and two more blocks by Parker — took the lead all the way up to 11-2. A pair of kills by Hellyer and two Gilmour errors made the score 16-5 and forced the Lancers to use their final timeout.
But there was simply no slowing down the Vikings.
“We’ve said all year — we’re extremely aggressive serving and we’re a solid defensive unit, and if a team stops us, then they deserve to win,” Gimour coach Danny Coughlin said. “They got us on our heels in a position we’re not used to — playing from behind. Their two hitters, Jonni ad Kyndall, did a great job, and their young ball control players did a good job keeping the ball in front of them — and that made the difference.
“Last year, we were the state champs. But we didn’t come out of the gate well. We’ve got to play from start to finish. We knew it would come down to who played their game better, and at the end of the day, Miami East played a cleaner match and made fewer errors.”
Two more kills by Hellyer and a Gilmour error gave the Vikings a 19-6 lead, and Parker’s 20th kill of the match and an ace by Kaitlyn Mack made the score 23-8. A kill by Parker gave the Vikings match point at 24-10, and after the Lancers won a pair of points, a service error ended the match and put East back in the state final.
Parker finished with a match-high 21 kills, 13 assists, 10 digs, an ace and three blocks, while Hellyer had 16 kills, 21 assists and 10 digs. Morrett had two kills, three digs and two blocks, Sophie Jacomet had a kill, two assists and 16 digs, Hawkins had seven digs, Jillian Wesco had five digs and a block, Gump had three aces and a dig, Taylor McCuistion had four digs and Lydia Conley had a dig.
Forsythe and Julia Brzozowski had nine kills apiece and setter Megan Brzozowski added six kills to her 21 assists to lead the Lancers.
And while reaching the state championship match has been the goal for the Vikings all season, they were still in a state of disbelief despite their dominant win — both for the team’s newcomers as well as the veteran leadership.
“As a freshman, it’s just crazy,” said Jacomet who, along with Hawkins, is one of the two freshmen starting for the Vikings this season. “In elementary school and junior high, I’d always watched these girls play. I never thought I’d be playing in the state final with them as a freshman.”
“It’s so surreal,” said Hellyer, who also played in that semifinal loss to the Lancers last season along with Parker. “It hasn’t really hit home yet. In the years following them (the 2011 and 2012 teams) winning state, we felt like we had to step up and fill that role. We’ve been building up to it the last few years, and now we’re here.”
Saturday’s title match against Tuscarawas Valley begins at 5 p.m. Saturday.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.