By Josh Brown
VANDALIA — For the Troy volleyball team’s seniors, it was one last chance to test their mettle against the state’s best.
For the Trojans’ younger players that will be back next year, it was a chance to see that they could compete against the best.
In the end, though, the best won out as Ursuline Academy — which finished the regular season ranked not only No. 1 in the state in the final Division I poll, but also ranked No. 11 in the nation — swept the Trojans in the D-I district final Saturday at Butler High School, winning 25-10, 25-9, 25-17 to end Troy’s season at 19-6.
And after the first two sets, a stronger showing against the defending state champions in the third was critical for Troy.
“We talked after Set 2 about how we earned the right to be here and play in this match,” Troy coach Michelle Owen said. “And that we were better than (the) nine points (Troy scored in the second). We weren’t playing terrible —we were passing the ball pretty well, considering. We subbed some kids in, and I thought they rose to the challenge.
“We talked about elevating our level of fun and focus and commitment to each other in Set 3, and they did that. And we had some success.”
Down 5-2 in the third, a tip kill by Lauren Schmitz gave the serve to senior libero Alexa Holland, who then served three straight points — including a pair of blocks by Brianna Slusher — to give Troy a 6-5 lead. Before that, the Trojans had not won consecutive points since the first two points of the entire match.
Troy continued to keep the set close, with an ace by senior Payton Riley and a kill by Kate Orban keeping the score tied as late as 14-14. But Ursuline’s Katherine Meyer — who had served a nine-point run in the first set that gave the Lions early control of the match — ran off five straight points to give Ursuline the separation it needed to pull away and finish off the match.
And while most focus on Ursuline’s height advantage or athleticism, it was the Lions’ ball control that truly did the Trojans in all day. Schmitz, the Trojans’ leader in kills on the season, couldn’t put one down until late in the second set — and the Lions routinely turned each amazing save by the defense into a blistering hit in the blink of an eye.
“They’re rarely out of system,” Owen said. “We saw probably less than eight free balls all night — and even when you have a free ball coming at you, you’re still going to rarely score on it. You’re going to send it over, and they’re still going to get a touch on it.”
Troy’s back court held its own, though, with Holland leading the way. Fellow senior Anya Coleman, as well as Ella Furlong, Emmie Jackson and Brennah Hutchinson all helped the Trojan defense withstand the Ursuline assault as well as it could.
“Our ball control was actually pretty solid today,” Owen said. “That’s important, because the year we went 24-0 (2015) and I got to pick what bracket we went into, we thought back to that year where we got to play St. Ursula. We felt we really had a great shot, and our ball control in that match just struggled. We were just all over the place. I feel like if we could’ve taken our ball control today, put it on that team where we had hitters (Lauren) Freed and (Katie) DeMeo and were playing the opponent we played then, man, we could’ve really had a shot. We just couldn’t put all the pieces together at the right time.
“So much of what happens early in the season controls our destiny late. We were the No. 6 seed this year, so I kind of didn’t have a choice where we went. So when we play those teams like Beavercreek and Centerville during the regular season, it’s important — not just for the wins and losses, but also for that tournament seed. If we win those matches, we get more control of where we go. And if we can control where we go, you never know when you get to this point — maybe you’re not playing the No. 11 team in the country and No. 1 team in the state. You’re playing the No. 3 and, maybe, if we pass like we did today, we take a set. And maybe that set becomes two. You never know.”
It was also a big match for senior Gabbi Johnson, who finished with a team-high kills — five of them coming in the first set — as well as two digs and two blocks. Kate Orban also had six kills, with four of them coming in the second set, and a dig, Schmitz finished with four kills and four blocks, Riley had three kills, a dig, a block and an ace, Slusher had four kills, two assists and three blocks and Morgan Baber had 18 assists, three digs and a block. Holland led the defense with 11 digs, Jackson had an ace and three digs, Furlong had three digs and Coleman and Hutchinson each had two digs.
It was the final match for seniors Holland, Riley, Johnson and Coleman.
“We talked about Alexa being probably the best libero we’ve had since Cassie Rice,” Owen said. “She’s been super consistent for us, and she’s really grown as a leader. And her serve really helped us this year, too. It was very aggressive and focused at key times. And Payton, she waited four years for her turn to be a go-to hitter for us. There were some matches this year, like Versailles, where she kind of won the match for us. With her big swing offsetting Lauren’s ability to finesse the ball to different spots, they had no answer for Payton’s huge, heavy arm. And she’s an excellent spot server, as well.
“Gabbi has struggled with injuries some this year, but she really keyed in on her blocking these past two weeks and finally earned that start against Miamisburg because of her block. We went that route to her in that match, and her block sparked our whole team defense in that match — we had one of the best blocking performances of the year. And for her to come out the way she did offensively tonight, it was an incredible performance to end her career with. And Anya, I’m so happy for her. She really had solid practices the last two days, really passing awesome. She’s been up and down this year with her ball control and comes off the bench for us, and yesterday at practice we took note of how strong she passed. We watched her in warmups today, and she passed well again, and my assistant coaches said if we need a sub, let’s look to her. We went to her right away, and she passed first balls right to target when we needed it. I was happy for her to be able to go in today and contribute as a senior.”
It was Troy’s fourth trip to the district final in the past five years, and second straight time facing Ursuline Academy. Last year, the Lions won 25-17, 25-8, 25-8 en route to a state title.
“I guess if you’re going to go out, go out to No. 1 in the state and No. 11 in the country,” Owen said.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.