By Josh Brown
CASSTOWN — When they were in middle school, a group of young girls in Casstown decided that the future would be theirs.
They made that future reality last fall.
Having watched the Miami East volleyball team win back-to-back state championships back in 2011 and 2012, the Vikings — now fully grown and playing on the varsity team themselves — cruised to the Division III state title match, took a two-game lead and held off a late rally by a stubborn Tuscarawas Valley team to win a championship of their own in a tense, thrilling five-game victory at Wright State’s Nutter Center.
“Looking up into the stands today, I remembered when I was that sixth-grader watching our girls win those two state championships,” said Jillian Wesco after the match, one of the five Viking seniors on the tea. “I remember thinking, ‘I want that. I want to do that. I want that to be me.’ Looking into the stands today? It was a great feeling.”
And, even in a year packed full of stellar team performances, Miami East capturing its third state title in a six-year span made it an easy choice for the Troy Daily News Girls Team of the Year.
“Those girls (the 2011 and 2012 championship teams) set the bar really high for us,” said Taylor McCuistion, another of the team’s seniors. “We’d watched them play since we were in the sixth grade, and we’ve dreamed of this moment, where we’d be them, ever since then.”
The regular season wasn’t even particularly great for the Vikings, though. They finished fourth in their own Casstown Clash tournament, and even though they went undefeated through Cross County Conference play for a seventh consecutive season on their way to another league title, the Vikings only went 5-5 in non-conference play.
But that grueling non-league schedule was by design, too — the high level of competition they faced outside of the CCC during the regular season only served to prepare the team for its real goal.
The Vikings defeated Roger Bacon in four games to win their sixth straight district championship, earning the right to face a familiar foe in the regional semifinal round — Versailles, which had defeated Miami East in that round of the tournament in 2013 and 2014.
“I definitely remember that,” junior Kyndall Hellyer said of the three-game rout at the hands of the Tigers her freshman year in 2014. “All the younger kids, they didn’t know how much this game meant to people like me and (fellow junior) Jonni (Parker). We wanted to come back and beat them.”
“It means a whole lot, after freshman year,” Parker said after the Vikings defeated the Tigers in four games. “We came out a little shaky at first, and we never really got our momentum back in the first set. But our response this year has been so much better. We’ve been working on that all year.”
It wouldn’t be the last chance for revenge the Vikings got along the road to the title, either. After sweeping Utica in the regional final round, they earned a state semifinal matchup against Gilmour Academy — the team that had defeated Miami East in the state semifinal round the previous season on its way to its own state title.
“We’re not satisfied with just making it there this time,” said first-year head coach Dan Peterson, who had been an assistant when the Vikings lost to Gilmour in the final four the season before. “This year, we want to win it all.”
Miami East left little doubt this time around, routing the defending state champions in four games to advance to the volleyball program’s third ever state championship match.
“You can tell this team is coming into its own,” Peterson said after the semifinal win. “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.”
The Vikings showed off their own greatness in the state championship match against Tuscarawas Valley.
Miami East jumped out to a 2-0 lead easily, winning the first two games 25-18 and 25-17, but the Trojans fought back by winning Games 3 and 4 both 22-25 to force a decisive fifth game.
“Coach Peterson has an equation that he conveniently put on a wristband for us,” Hellyer said. “Event plus response equals outcome. For us there, the event was winning the first two sets but losing the next two. Our response had to be to come out and win the fifth set. We responded … and our outcome? State champs.”
And with the score tied 4-4 and freshman Gabrielle Hawkins taking the serve, Peterson was fully confident.
“We’re tied 4-4, and we get the serve to Gabrielle Hawkins, who served some huge runs for us yesterday (against Gilmour),” Peterson said. “She’s a freshman, and she doesn’t play a lot of club volleyball either, so sometimes I think she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know — and I think that might have helped in this situation. She just came in and put serves right where they needed to be. You could see the ice running through her veins.”
That confidence was rightly placed, as Hawkins served eight straight points to put the Vikings firmly in control. And on the final point of that run, Parker made an incredible diving one-armed save while falling out of bounds and into the Vikings’ bench, and she got up and made it back to the net just in time to block a Trojan kill attempt, making the score 13-4 at the time. After the Trojans won two points, another block by Parker and a kill by Hellyer wrapped up the victory.
And as for the Vikings’ future?
“It was a great feeling, knowing that those girls that are in junior high now were out there watching us and looking up to us,” Hellyer said. “Ready to carry on that tradition.”
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.