CLAYTON — “New team, same dream,” has been the slogan for New Bremen’s volleyball team this season. It’s been brought up in many practices according to coach Diana Kramer and is printed on t-shirts the team wears.
After consecutive losses to Midwest Athletic Conference rivals Fort Recovery and Coldwater in early October, it looked like dreaming of repeating as Division IV state champions might be aiming too high.
The squad is playing better than ever now, though, and its dream is within grasp.
New Bremen beat Jackson Center 25-15, 25-13, 25-22 in a Div. IV regional final on Saturday at Northmont’s Thunderdome to earn its second consecutive state berth. The Cardinals will face Monroeville in a state semifinal on Thursday at Wright State’s Nutter Center.
“I’m proud of my team, my coaching staff and the entire community,” Kramer said. “We were told after last season we were going to be bad because we lost Paige (Jones). Maybe we proved some people wrong.
“We’re not done yet. We’re hungry and we’re humble, and we’re going to stay focused on what we have to do.”
There were some lessons to be learned through the course of the season for New Bremen (23-4) as it became accustomed to playing without Jones, who’s starring in her freshman season at Michigan.
Jones was the focus of the Cardinals’ offense the last several years and led them in kills throughout their state championship run last year. They’ve developed a balanced attack this season with Macy Puthoff, Taylor Paul, Claire Pape, Rachel Kremer and several others.
“From the beginning of the season, we were like ‘This is our year.’ We all work together. People can’t tell us who our best hitter is,” Puthoff said. “Our best player everyday is different. We have a lot of different people we can rely on.
“… It actually feels better (this year). Last year was our first time, but it’s really hard to get to state twice. We want to break that. We want to get there and win again.”
The Cardinals lost 3-1 to St Henry in September in MAC play before falling to Fort Recovery a month later. They beat the Indians 3-0 in a sectional final on Oct. 22 and rallied from an early 2-0 deficit to defeat the Redskins 3-2 in a district final three days later.
“I think that those losses (at the end of regular season) were the best thing that could have happened to us,” Kramer said. “We were defeated. We wanted to win the MAC. After we got into the locker room after that I told them, ‘We wanted to win the MAC championship and a state championship, but what’s better?’ They all said, ‘winning a state championship.’
“… We made a couple of adjustments after that, and that was huge. After we lost that game to Coldwater, hardly anybody thought that we were going to be in the position that we’re in today. These kids are tough, really, really tough. I’m proud of them and proud of this entire town.”
Jackson Center coach Kim Metz said the team was still a bit tired from beating Russia 3-1 in a regional semifinal on Thursday night and was hoping the Cardinals were still a bit tired from their 3-0 regional semifinal win over Fort Loramie.
“That’s what good teams do — good teams are able to sustain no matter what, come back the next day and do it all over again,” Metz said. “Diana’s got a squad. She’s building and developing a program that everybody is going to want to start to follow and be a part of.”
The Cardinals scored five consecutive points to take an 11-5 lead in the first game and later increased the advantage to 17-8. Jackson Center cut it down to seven, but the Cardinals scored three of the next four to take a 21-12 lead and cruised to a 10-point win.
The score was tied 4-4 early in the second game, but New Bremen scored four consecutive points in part thanks to defensive miscues by the Tigers to take a lead. A kill by Pape later increased the lead to 12-6.
With a six-point lead at 17-11, New Bremen scored four of the next six, which caused Jackson Center to call a timeout. The Cardinals then scored the next four points to close out the set.
Puthoff had a diving save in the second set in which the ball hit off her leg and went over the net.
“I’ve seen people kick the ball in practice before but I’ve never seen it be kicked and actually go across the net, and then we find a way to win the point,” Kramer said. “The crowd came to their feet, and that allowed us to be able to continue to push forward in that second set. That was a great play.”
The teams traded points early in the third game. Elizabeth Hickey had a kill for Jackson Center to tie it, but New Bremen quickly took the lead.
Kremer had a kill on a hard spike to give the Cardinals an 11-10 lead, then Jackson Center sent its next two return attempts out of bounds to increase the lead to three points.
New Bremen built a 17-13 lead, but Jackson Center scored five of the next eight to pull within 20-18.
After a timeout, Kremer had a kill on a hard spike sent to the middle of the court, and Jackson Center sent a return out of bounds to increase New Bremen’s lead to 22-18. Raquel Kessler then had a kill and combined on a block with Deja Wells to cut the deficit to two, but Jackson Center sent its next serve into the net.
The Tigers pulled within 24-22, but Claire Pape sent a spike into the back middle of the court on an assist from Madison Pape to end it.
Paul had 10 kills while Kremer had eight and Claire Pape and Puthoff each had seven. Josie Reinhart had six kills, Abbi Thieman had 21 assists and Madison Pape had 15 assists. Puthoff had three aces and nine digs and Blake Snider had seven digs.
New Bremen had 11 team aces in the match.
“We knew that they were going to serve tough, and we were working on it,” Metz said. “Thursday night, it was a late night. We didn’t get an awful lot accomplished in practice (Friday). They were still wiped out from that Thursday match unfortunately.”
Jackson Center finishes 24-4 and will lose four seniors to graduation: Kessler, Kate Sosby, Riley Jackson and Caroline Frieders. Kessler was named the Shelby County Athletic League player of the year the last two seasons and is verbally committed to University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Metz, who led the Tigers to consecutive state championships in 2015 and 2016, has continued to coach the team this season while undergoing treatment for breast cancer. She thanked the seniors and the players for helping her this year.
“It’s just an amazing group of kids,” Metz said. “We’ve been through so much this season. I don’t wish this on anybody. I think it’s a stupid disease. I think we need to find a cure. I think everybody that goes through it knows it’s life-changing. The people that care for people going through this, they own their jobs. The people that are caring for me are amazing. They have been my rocks through this entire season.”
The Tigers will return the bulk of their roster, and Metz is confident the team will be able to have another deep postseason run.
“We bring an awful lot of youth back and bring some great kids back,” Metz said. “The biggest thing we bring back is an awful lot of heart. We bring back what these kids stand for. I just can’t tell you enough about how these kids expect and know what to do to get things done.”
New Bremen will start its quest for the second state title in school history against Monroeville at 2 p.m. on Thursday in Fairborn.
Saturday’s regional final was the third time the teams have met in the postseason in the last three years. The Tigers won a regional final matchup in 2016 while New Bremen won a regional semifinal last year.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.