By Mike Deak
OSSIAN – So much was made about that 2019 volleyball regional at Norwell, at least in NorthWood circles. Did it or didn’t it actually spearhead the Black Swish basketball team to a state championship? Did the loss to Bellmont become one of the worst losses in program history? Could the program ever recover?
Well, 2020 answered at least the last question as NorthWood went on to win a sectional last fall despite COVID issues derailing a potential shot at a conference championship. Bellmont made relatively quick work of NorthWood, however, at last year’s regional, but it’s still the 2019 loss to Bellmont that’s still talked about.
“I’m literally talking about that game every week, it’s always…oh my gosh I cannot believe that happened,” noted NorthWood junior libero Macy Lengacher, a freshman on that 2019 team. “How did that happen? We were up 2-0. How did we lose three in a row? I was talking about this with my parents, it’s literally the exact same. If time could repeat, this is it. This is our time to go get that revenge. We wanted that revenge for so long. Yeah, I’m so excited.”
There are not exact odds given, but surely it has to be one in a million that the exact format from the memorable 2019 regional tournament could be redone two years later. Anyone want to put a Washington on it? A Benjamin? Milk money? Well, somehow the odds worked out that yes, Bellmont and Angola played in the regional semis in 2019 and will play in again this weekend in game one at Norwell. Yes, NorthWood and Northwestern also met in 2019, and are on course to make up game two. NorthWood would win that 2019 matchup in a tidy three games, Bellmont needed five games and an extra point to drop Angola.
Anyone want to ask Hilary Laidig about five games at Norwell?
“For me, it’s just unbelievable with all these stacked sectionals, the blind draw for the regional, pretty wild,” Laidig said about the luck of the draw. “There’s no way that could have happened, but it did. Kind of up to us to reverse our fortunes, though.”
While talking about revisionist history makes for fun conversation, the truth in the 2021 version is most of the players on NorthWood’s squad have no idea what happened in 2019 other than they lost. Lengacher and Alana Lehman were the only two players on the current roster who saw the court in the 2019 regional. And the 2021 roster, which has just two seniors and one junior in its regular rotation, isn’t necessarily concerned with anything but trying to win the program’s first regional championship in over a decade.
As the 31-2 Panthers have taken off, so to have the right arms of Lehman, Sophia Barber and Claire Payne. The three have combined for 680 of the team’s kills, Barber and Payne just freshmen to Lehman’s senior status. Payne, the younger sister of 2019 star Maddy Payne, has been a big-time force in the middle often opposite the rotation of Lehman, and Barber typically attacks from the outside. In any form, NorthWood’s hammers are tough to stop.
“I feel like my game has had to adjust as the season has gone along,” Payne said. “Coming into the year, I wasn’t really experienced at the high school level. The pace of the game is a lot quicker. But that’s something I’ve adjusted to and am more comfortable with what we are doing.”
NorthWood’s serving, per Laidig, could make or break its shot at a regional title. The Red Slam have whistled an impressive 267 aces this season, with six players with at least 30 this season. Serve receive and ball handling are also on Laidig’s checked boxes, where Lengacher is one of the best in the state with 525 digs to her credit.
NorthWood has also seen the rise of Annika Bennett, who is noted as the setter, with 901 assists on the campaign, but also has 254 digs and does a whole bunch of the intangibles that may not innumerate on MaxPreps.
As Northwestern goes, so goes junior McKenna Layden. Daughter of head coach Kathie Layden, McKenna is the stat stuffer for the Tigers with 293 kills, 147 digs and 72 blocks. The 6’2″ Layden also has a second gunner with her up front in 6’0″ Leah Carter, who has 164 kills to her name.
“We’ve tried to catch patterns in film study with Northwestern and these teams, like when they like to hit, what their rotations look like,” Laidig said. “We know Layden is their big hitter, but the other girl (Carter) can score in bunches, too. We need to track those two at all times.”
Angola (25-7) and Bellmont (27-5) play at 10 a.m. Saturday at Norwell followed by NorthWood (31-2) and Northwestern (25-1). The winners will come back for the regional championship at 7 p.m.