WARSAW – A championship toughness, especially in the state tournament, has been the calling card for the Elkhart Memorial volleyball program for a long time.
That trademark was never more evident than Saturday.
The gritty Crimson Chargers simply refused to lose in rallying past host Warsaw 3-2 in a Class 4-A sectional semifinal thriller.
Memorial, owners of six straight sectional championships, was at its best when it mattered most in the third meeting of the season between the Northern Lakes Conference rivals.
Coach Jacquie Rost’s tough-minded group won the final two sets of the match to move on to the sectional final Saturday night.
Memorial, which sidelined Warsaw by a 3-1 final in a sectional semifinal a year ago, won the contest 25-22, 22-25, 24-26, 25-19, 15-11.
The Chargers, who improved to 23-11 and advanced to play city rival Elkhart Central Saturday night in the sectional finale, had split with Warsaw during the regular season. Memorial won at Warsaw 3-1 in the NLC clash and then lost 2-0 in the Michigan City Invitational Sept. 21.
“We’ve been here before,” said Rost following the epic clash. “This team has been in pressure situations all season. All the time, we point to where we’ve been as a program.
“I’m just proud of how the girls came back. Our schedule does a lot of things for us as far as being mentally and physically prepared for matches like this one. I just told them before the fifth set to play hard and they did.
“I attribute this win to our grittiness. It’s about heart and refusing to lose.”
Warsaw, which did end Memorial’s 76-match win streak in conference play in 2012, seemed to have seized control of the semifinal with a clutch effort in the third game. The Tigers trailed 23-21 and 24-23 in the set before Taylor Jagger came up huge with a tip kill and a slam to notch the 26-24 win.
Memorial did not blink down the stretch thanks in large part to stellar sophomores Bailey Brouwer and Darrian Mowery. The pair of powerful forces at the net paced Memorial to a convincing win in game four to even the set.
The deciding game saw the Chargers bolt to a quick 7-3 edge. The Tigers answered with a 5-0 run, sparked by the serving of junior Katie Voelz, to take an 8-7 lead. Rost’s team responded after a timeout by their savvy coach with a 3-0 run on a kill and block by senior middle Chelsea Bettis and an ace from junior Jill Brown to lead 10-8. Emily Poe then slammed a kill and Kenzie Welk followed with an ace to tie the game at 10-10.
Memorial outscored the hosts 5-1 down the final stretch. The Chargers made it 11-10 on a Warsaw net violation before a huge crosscourt kill by Poe made it 11-11. Brouwer then delivered a soft kill and Mowery followed with a big blast to end a long, back-and-forth rally. The Tigers then were called for a lift violation and Brouwer ended the match with a kill.
“We competed, but it came down to execution in the end,” said Warsaw coach Mike Howard. “We struggled to make key plays. Memorial just kept fighting. We’ve been there before with them.
“We were one play away today. Our ball control let us down at the end. We were out of system and scrambling. Pressure does that to you. They got big swings from No. 12 (Brouwer) and that gave them momentum.”
Rost, who has directed her program to four appearances in the State Finals, pointed to two areas that made the difference late for her team.
“Our serve receive was nails at the end and we also served tougher,” Rost said. “We stress being a blue collar team. I thought it was great volleyball. Mike’s teams are always well coached and they challenge us every time.”
Warsaw finishes 25-8 and will graduate eight seniors in Taylor Jagger, Chandler Stevens, Laura Craig, Emily Poe, Marie West, Ashlyn Vitoux, Delaney Goble and Emma Bonifield.
“I thought Taylor (Jagger) stepped up big time for us today and had a great, great match,” said Howard. “I admire this team for being resilient this season and fighting back.
“We just lacked consistent play. We could play spectacular at times and then struggle. It was feast or famine.”
Senior Taylor Jagger turned in a fantastic final match for Warsaw. The outside hitter blasted a season-high 19 kills. Senior Poe had 18 kills, senior Laura Craig eight and Voelz seven. Junior Megan Chauncey had 53 assists, four aces and three blocks. Voelz had four blocks and two aces. Craig led the defense with 19 digs, while Poe had 16 and sophomore Peyton Adamiec 15. Sophomore Jordyn Lindeman had three blocks.
Brouwer smacked 15 kills and Mowery 11 for Memorial. Bettis, one of just three seniors, had 10 and Tailor Schultheis seven. Junior Victoria Mills ahd 40 assists and three aces. Brown had three aces and Claire Welter two. Welter had 30 digs, while Brown had 22, Mills 16 and Kaylin Szucs 10. Schultheis had eight total blocks, Mowery four and Brouwer three.
Central, which lost 3-2 to Memorial during the regular season, topped Northridge for the third time this season in Saturday’s first semifinal. The Blue Blazers, led by 34 kills from Purdue recruit Azariah Stahl, won 26-24, 19-25, 25-22, 25-18. Central improved to 27-3, while the Raiders finished at 26-8.