By Mike Deak
AKRON – The seniors could sense it. Head coach Hilary Laidig admitted to thinking about it. Several of the NorthWood supporters were mumbling about it under their breath, hoping no one would hear them talking about it.
Was it going to happen again?
Not Saturday night.
In what was shaping up to look like a repeat of a dark page in NorthWood’s volleyball history book, but soon became a bright spot once again. The Panthers and Wawasee put on a heckuva show Saturday night in the Class 3-A Tippecanoe Valley Volleyball Sectional final, NorthWood sitting on top in a 25-20, 26-24, 22-25, 23-25, 15-12 slugfest.
“I have to admit, it crossed my mind,” quipped Laidig, beaming with pride and holding back tears of both elation and exhaustion following the championship. “Not that I didn’t believe in my kids, but seriously, PTSD. I couldn’t believe it felt like it was happening again. But the girls dug in and got the points.”
The 3-2 loss to Bellmont in last year’s regional final was the rallying cry in what later became a 3-A basketball championship last February. But that wasn’t on many minds as NorthWood pulled up with the first two games, the 26-24 game two a showcase for what both teams do well. Wawasee’s power offense and NorthWood scrappy defense both kept the scorekeeper busy. But as Wawasee pulled out game three, then game four and sitting tied at six in game five, even Kate Rulli across the way looked nervous.
Wawasee, which expended more energy than it wanted in a 3-1 win in the afternoon semi-final against Lakeland, one that saw the third and fourth sets go extra points, again had to turn it on. Facing elimination in game three, Dylan Konieczny pounded out two kills to break a 20-20 tie, and two NorthWood errors kept Wawasee alive.
Kills from Emma Dippon and Bailey Mayhew put Wawasee up 23-19 in game four, and after Alana Lehman smashed home a kill to pull NorthWood within one, Konieczny scraped a winner across court to send the game to a fifth.
“NorthWood is tournament tested, so to lose set two being up 21-18, that’s a heartbreaker to not get the set and tie it back up,” said Wawasee head coach Jeff Phillips. “We were able to come back, push the match to game five, and there’s nothing more you can ask given how it started.”
Lehman, who isn’t the first, second or sometimes third option, became the center of attention in the fifth game. She opened with a block, then a kill, and later came in to score three points to move NorthWood up 12-9. Her 17 kills were vital, but so were the three blocks and the numerous touches she got at the net, slowing down Wawasee heatseekers enough for the defense to track the attempts.
“Alana got crazy touches,” Laidig said. “She sprained her ankle at practice this week and I’m sure she was sore, but she ran around like crazy.”
A Lehman tip allowed Alea Minnich, back for the tournament after contact tracing had her sidelined for two critical weeks, registered a kill to give Wood a four-point lead. Then Minnich had the final swing that Wawasee couldn’t produce into an attack, ending the drama to send the championship trophy back to Nappanee.
“I’m just grateful to be back playing in the sectional,” said Minnich, who had 18 kills to lead the Panthers. “This was definitely a roller coaster tonight. We got up, then Wawasee comes back and takes the lead. It was draining, but that forced us to come together and be reliant on each other.”
Defensively, NorthWood was as sound as ever, with Macy Lengacher recording 29 digs and Ali Knepp 28 digs, the duo responsible for a host of diving saves and ups that kept plays alive. Kendal Miller had 22 digs, 56 assists and two aces, and Annika Bennett had some timely finishes among her 13 kills and eight assists.
Wawasee’s crushing defeat did come with some historical silver lining. Sophomore setter Amanda Allen was credited with 57 assists in the contest, pushing her to 875 for the season, both program records. Allen, who had 47 assists against Lakeland in the semi-final, broke the match assists record earlier in the year when she recorded 48 helpers at Bethany Christian.
In their final game as Lady Warriors, Dippon had 22 kills and Mayhew had 17 digs, 13 kills, seven blocks and three aces. Leslie Vazquez had 17 digs, 13 kills and five blocks and Konieczny posted 13 kills.
“We bring back a pretty solid core for this team, and despite the loss today, their experience here is going to help push us to that next level,” said Phillips, whose team bows out 22-12.
NorthWood (26-7) will get its chance at redemption as Bellmont (21-4) is waiting for them at Norwell once again. The two will meet in the first game of next Saturday’s Norwell Regional, a 10 a.m. start. Fort Wayne Dwenger (29-2) and Eastern (22-13) will square off in game two.