CLAYTON — Inconsistent play was prevalent from all Shelby County Athletic League teams in regular season, including champions Jackson Center and Russia.
Though the two squads had 43 victories between themselves entering a Division IV regional semifinal on Thursday at Northmont’s Thunderdome, five-set matches were the norm when they played strong opponents, win or lose.
Both teams had bouts of inconsistency on Thursday — but a dramatic fourth-set comeback from Jackson Center prevented another five-set match.
The Tigers rallied from a 15-8 deficit and beat Russia 25-21 in the fourth game to earn a 3-1 victory, which puts the team in a regional final against New Bremen on Saturday in Clayton.
And inconsistency against the defending Division IV state champion Cardinals would be a recipe for disaster according to Jackson Center senior middle hitter Raquel Kessler.
“We struggle with that a lot, and with New Bremen coming up, we can’t take any breaks,” Kessler said. “We have to push beginning, middle and end. …We get in lulls in the middle and have to fight back so many points, and it just takes so much energy out of us. We have to learn to keep pushing in the beginning. That way, we can get a strong lead and just keep going.”
The Tigers (24-3) pushed at the beginning of Thursday’s match by taking a 16-3 in the first game on their way to a 25-11 win.
Then came their first break. Russia jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the second game and maintained an advantage all the way through. After the Raiders took a 24-19 lead, Jackson Center scored four consecutive points, but a kill on a tip from senior middle hitter Samantha Gaerke ended it.
The teams stayed close in the third set. Consecutive kills by Russia sophomore middle hitter Ashley Scott and Gaerke brought Russia within 20-18. The Tigers scored the next four, though, to pull away to a 25-19 win.
Jackson Center took a 3-0 in the fourth set, but…
“We took another break,” Kessler said.
Russia senior Laurissa Poling had a kill on a hard spike to put Russia up 5-4. The Raiders pushed their lead to 10-6 and then scored five of the next seven to take a seven-point lead.
Jackson Center’s break ended then.
After Russia took a 16-10 lead, Jackson Center scored six consecutive points. With an 18-18 tie, Jackson Center sophomore Ashley Mullenhour had a kill on a tip to put the Tigers ahead.
Kessler followed with a kill, and a return attempt by Russia landed out of bounds to give Jackson Center a 21-19 lead.
Scott had a kill to bring Russia within 23-21. Elizabeth Hickey then scored a kill on a hard spike, which appeared to land behind the back line. The officials ruled a Russia player tipped the ball (to the dismay of Raiders fans), and Jackson Center took a three-point lead.
Kessler then placed the match-ending kill in front of a diving Kendall Monnin.
“We didn’t get any of the 50/50 balls, that’s for sure,” Russia coach Aaron Watkins said. “Just seemed like they were at big times, momentum points.
”…We just didn’t get in rhythm. Our offense was a lot of roll shots and tips. We’re not going to win games when we’re roll shot and tipping. And (Jackson Center) is a scrappy team. It’s as simple as that.”
Jackson Center coach Kim Metz, who has continued to coach the team while undergoing treatment for breast cancer, credited the players for calming down after Russia took an early lead in the fourth set.
“I started to lose my voice there, and they started to come in a little closer, and when I stood up I got dizzy, and I was like, ‘Oh boy, if this goes five, I’m hurtin’ for certain,’” Metz said. “Thank goodness that they came back. They got a little more balance underneath us. They tried to do some crazy things, got a little kamikaze a little bit and caused a little bit more chaos on our end than we needed to.”
Kessler, who has been named the SCAL player of the year the last two years, led Jackson Center with 22 kills, 19 digs and three blocks.
Caroline Frieders had seven kills, 14 digs and 34 assists for Jackson Center. Katie Sosby had 16 digs and Deja Wells had three blocks.
Hickey added 13 kills, which Metz said was a big help.
“She did a great job for us,” Metz said. “Great balance. We know that Raquel is going to do some things, but it’s nice to have one-two punches. Again, we’re young, and we’re going to have some freshman mistakes, but thankfully those mistakes didn’t add up to make a big old mess.”
The Tigers will try not to make a mess when playing for a state berth against New Bremen, which beat Fort Loramie 3-0 in Thursday’s first semifinal.
“You’re not going to get runs (against them), but you have to eliminate them getting runs on you,” Metz said. “My thought process was to break each set down in sets of three. You want to get that third point and not let them. Whether that works out all the time and you get that sideout or whether it doesn’t, that’s still for everybody to create and see.”
Kessler said earning a state trip for Metz this season would be a great gift.
“That would probably mean the world to her,” Kessler said. “I can just imagine how she’d probably cry. Everything that we’ve been through as a team this year has made us become so close. We want it, and so does she. If we can do that for her, than that means the world.”
Russia finishes 20-7. The Raiders will lose four seniors to graduation: Jenna Cordonnier, Morgan Wenrick, Gaerke and Poling. Poling and Cordonnier were first team all-SCAL selections this year. Cordonnier set many assists records, while Poling set the program’s single-season kills record as a junior.
“I can’t say enough,” Watkins said of the seniors. “They’re all awesome. They’re all great girls that are going to do so much in their life. I would assume they’re one of the winningest if not the winningest class at Russia. Back-to-back regional appearances. We’re going to be back here next year because of what they’ve done.”
The teams split a pair of five-set matches in SCAL play in regular season.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.