By Josh Brown
CASSTOWN — Monday couldn’t arrive fast enough for the members of the Miami East volleyball team.
Not something that can typically be said about high school students.
But most of those didn’t become state champions over the weekend.
And while life may gradually return to normal for the Vikings after they won the Division III state championship in a thrilling five-set victory over Tuscarawas Valley Saturday at the Nutter Center — the program’s third state title in the past six years — they’re still enjoying the brand-new feeling of being champions themselves.
“It was kind of funny. I think they were excited to go to school on Monday … for the first time in, like, ever,” Miami East coach Dan Peterson said. “I don’t know if it’s really sunk in yet or not, though.”
And even though most of the school was present when the Vikings won the championship on Saturday, cheering for the team from the stands as members of the ‘Blue Crew,’ it was still the Vikings’ first chance to walk through the halls of their home during school hours as proud owners of Miami East’s newest trophy.
“Yeah, they were maybe looking forward to the congratulations,” Peterson said. “And they should be. They should be proud of what they did.”
Before this season, the Vikings won back-to-back state championships in 2011 and 2012 — the last of which came the year before the team’s current seniors reached the high school level as freshmen. After being ousted in the regional semifinal round by Versailles in 2013 and 2014, Miami East lost to Gilmour Academy in the state semifinal round last season.
This year, not only did the Vikings defeat the Tigers — and in the regional semifinal round, as well, breaking that part of the curse — they also defeated the Lancers in the state semifinal round to reach the title game. Once there, they won the first two sets against Tuscarawas Valley, but the Trojans won the next two to force a fifth set — only to have Miami East rout them 15-6 to seal the win.
Peterson, an assistant with the team last season before taking over as head coach this year, is still taking everything in himself.
“I don’t think I slept much that night, and the whole next day and since my phone’s been going off all day long. I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet for me, either. Just knowing what those girls accomplished and everything they had to fight for, it’s hard to wrap your head around sometimes.”
Thursday night, the entire Casstown community will get the chance to wrap its head around it. The Viking volleyball team will host a community celebration at 7 p.m. in the Miami East High School gymnasium.
* For Grandma
“The people that we care about the most are there cheering for us. That’s what helps us win.”
That’s what Miami East senior Taylor McCuistion said on Saturday, referring to the ‘Blue Crew’ student section after the Vikings had won the state title.
But one fan was watching her from somewhere else.
“Her grandmother (Beaulah Singleton) passed away Friday afternoon,” Peterson said. “Her mom (Linda McCuistion) is actually our bus driver. She knew before we played our match Friday night and did not tell Taylor until after. She said she went home that night, and she said Taylor was crying until 1 a.m. We were back out at the school at 8 a.m. the next morning doing some run-throughs, and Taylor was as focused as could be. She focused on what she had to do.”
And McCuistion came through when her team needed it most.
In the fifth set, McCuistion capped off an early four-point run with a heads-up play. Tuscarawas Valley’s Kierrah Stewart appeared to block a Miami East hit, but McCuistion was in perfect position and alertly punched the ball to the back corner — and with every Trojan at the net blocking, the smart play gave the Vikings a 4-1 advantage.
And after the Trojans came back to tie the score at 4-4, a Reagan Morrett tip for a kill sparked another lengthy run — with back-to-back blocks by fellow senior Jillian Wesco and McCuistion on the Trojans’ leading hitter, Kayla Hall, making the score 7-4. From there, the Vikings weren’t challenged again.
“In that fifth set, Taylor made some pretty big plays for us,” Peterson said. “She had some big swings and a big block for us, too.
“In every practice, we play a four-on-four game to five points. And when you get down to that last point, you’re going to make the smart play to win. You’re not going to go up and crush it. You’re going to place the ball where you need to — and that’s what she did right there. She placed it where we needed to to win the point.”
And even if she wasn’t there physically, McCuistion had help from someone she cared about the most.
* Serving Up A Championship
That run continued for nine straight points, taking the score from 4-4 to 13-4 and sealing the Vikings’ victory.
Peterson said that after Morrett’s tip gave the serve to East, he knew everything was in good hands.
Freshman Gabrielle Hawkins’ hands.
“When we had Hawkins go back to serve, I was pretty comfortable with what was about to happen,” Peterson said. “She was as calm as can be, she was confident, and she’d been on point with her serve all day. I was pretty comfortable with what we were doing.”
Wesco and McCuistion got the eight-point service run rolling with their back-to-back stuffs at the net, with McCuistion’s forcing a Trojan timeout. A tip kill and a booming blast by Jonni Parker — who led the team in kills in the match — kept things rolling, though, making the score 9-4, and Hawkins served up an ace, Tuscarawas Valley was called for a double and Parker sent a tip to the back corner to make it 12-4.
“We had a hard blocking them all day,” Peterson said. “That last set, we stepped up our blocking big time. With those two things together, it was a run for the ages.”
* ‘That’ Point
That run for the ages had a very emphatic exclamation point stuffed onto the end of it, courtesy of Parker.
And both freshman starters, Hawkins and libero Sophie Jacomet, had a hand in it, as well.
“We have two freshmen that have nerves of steel out there,” Peterson said. “Sophie made some big digs in that fifth set, too, especially when we were in the middle of that run. She cut the angles on their swings and was sitting there waiting for it.”
After a dig by Jacomet kept the play alive but sent Hawkins far behind the service line for the second hit, the ball went sailing out of bounds to the right side near the Miami East bench. Parker came sailing in, dove for the ball and hit it with one arm, sending it flying back over her head, over the net and miraculously in bounds.
She slammed down onto the floor as the ball went over, but she wasn’t phased. She jumped right back up and bolted back to the net — just in time to block a Trojan swing to make it a 13-4 game and all but seal the win.
A video of the play, shot by someone on Miami East’s bench, can be found on Twitter.
“Yeah, I think we’ve all seen that video a million times by now,” Peterson said. “It went from Sophie, then Gabrielle had a bit of a misplay, but then Jonni pulls a Superman move out of nowhere to save it. It all started with Sophie jumping that swing. It was a perfect dig, but she kept the ball alive — and we’re pretty good at scramble plays, too.”
After Tuscarawas Valley finally ended the run and won a pair of points, another block by Parker — the Vikings’ fourth of the set — and a kill by Kyndall Hellyer closed out the match and kicked off a Miami East celebration.
One that even made the Vikings happy to go to school on a Monday.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.