By Adam Yoder
OSSIAN – NorthWood volleyball head coach Hilary Laidig has commented many times throughout this season how much she’s loved her team’s fight and competitiveness.
That was certainly on display on Saturday morning at Norwell in the IHSAA 3-A regional semifinal as the No. 9-ranked Panthers took on the No. 1-ranked Bellmont Squaws. In addition to being atop the final Indiana High School Volleyball Coaches’ Association 3-A poll, Bellmont ended NorthWood’s season a year ago on the same court en route to state runner-up finish.
There was plenty to play for and the Panthers fought like crazy, but in the end, the Squaws, coached by Craig Krull, proved worthy of their ranking by dispensing of the Panthers 25-11, 25-21, and 25-15.
The first set saw Bellmont jump out to an early 14-6 lead and never let up. Multiple scoring runs were fueled by the serves of Squaw sophomore Lauren Ross and strong control at the net from several players.
On that first set, Laidig commented, “We were definitely a little nervous at the beginning and just struggled getting up to that speed. They have options at every hitting position.”
Several serving errors also proved costly, according to the Panther head coach. “We were definitely trying to push them back there with our serves, but we were just a little off.”
In both the second and third sets, the Panthers showed that competitive mettle they used to finish second in the Northern Lakes Conference, win multiple invitationals, and capture the Tippecanoe Valley Sectional last weekend.
A much more confident NorthWood squad grabbed a 6-3 lead in set two and a 3-1 lead in set three. As one would expect, the Squaws came quickly roaring back. However, much more aggressive front line play from Ali Knepp (five kills), Alea Minnich (three blocks), Alana Lehman (12 kills), and Bre Wise (three blocks) allowed the Panthers to stay in both sets.
“We fought like crazy in the third and third set. We were getting touches, made adjustments, and even surprised Bellmont a few times getting balls over the net that we weren’t getting to in the first set,” Laidig said.
Bellmont’s strategy on offense appeared to frustrate the NorthWood defense, as they continually attacked away from sophomore Macy Lengacher, the Panthers leading digger on the season with 411 coming into play on Saturday.
While Lengacher still had 23 digs on Saturday, according to Laidig it was evident that Bellmont was careful not to attack her. “They definitely did not hit at her. They didn’t hit crosscourt which we had seen them do in the films we watched.”
Senior setter Kendal Miller notched 20 assists in addition to matching Lengacher with 23 digs. Coach Laidig had nothing but good things to say about the ultra-successful, multi-sport star.
“Look at Kendal (Miller), transferring to setter after never having been a setter. That is such a tough position and she’s such a smart girl. She did great.”
Annika Bennett also had two aces and two assists on the day for the Panthers.
After their second straight sectional title and fourth consecutive season with over 20 wins, Coach Laidig was filled with admiration for this year’s team which will graduate eight seniors.
“It’s amazing isn’t it, we lost so many things from last year and had obstacles in front of us this year, but these kids picked up, did what they needed to do, and just played so hard defensively all year. Really proud of these kids, we a great season.”
No. 3 Fort Wayne Dwenger advanced to the final against Bellmont by disposing of Eastern (Greentown) 3-0 in the second semi-final. Bellmont and Dwenger face off at 7 p.m. for the regional championship.