TROY — There haven’t been many close victories for Russia this season. That’s typically been because when the Raiders have been in close situations, they’ve lost.
But faced with an early deficit in a Division IV district final on Saturday at Troy High School’s Trojan Activities Center, Russia rallied to earn a 26-28, 22-25, 25-21, 25-23, 15-2 victory over Franklin-Monroe.
“A month ago, we lose this in three (sets),” Russia coach Aaron Watkins said. “I think the freshmen getting mature and our girls coming together as a team and fighting as one was big.”
It’s the third consecutive district title for the Raiders (16-10), which advance to face the Fairlawn in a regional semifinal on Thursday at Northmont’s High School’s Thunderdome. Fairlawn beat Miami Valley Christian 3-0 in the third D-IV district final of the day in Troy.
This district title is unique from the previous two, which were expected after the squad excelled in regular season. The Raiders were led by upperclassmen in recent years, including current Wright State player Laurissa Polling and Jenna Cordonnier, who graduated after being named first team all-Shelby County Athletic League last year.
The Raiders had several other players graduate off last season’s 20-7 campaign and had some early struggles this season, as they fell to 2-6 after losing three games in the St. Henry Invitational on Aug. 31.
Two months later, the squad has won 10 of its last 12 games and will play in its third consecutive regional.
“The girls work hard,” Watkins said. “They know what is expected of them, and they go get it.”
After losing late in both the first two sets, Russia rallied from an early deficit to win the third, then held on late to win the fourth.
“I think we came out in a flat mood,” Russia junior middle hitter Ashley Scott said. “We started gelling together after that. Towards the end, our crowd was really loud, and that helped us to get momentum on our side.”
There were no dramatics in the decisive fifth game, though, as Franklin-Monroe looked worn out. The Raiders capitalized on a series of miscues by the Jets to take an early 4-0 lead and cruised from there to a 15-2 win.
“We just had a good energy with us,” Watkins said.
The squad struggled early on with the Jets’ defense but adjusted and got more hits to fall late. Part of the late surge came thanks to Scott, who had a school-record 34 kills in the win to surpass the old mark of 27 set by Poling. The performance also makes her Russia’s single-season kills leader — she has 350 to her credit this year.
“They would compete in anyone in the state, no doubt,” Watkins said of Franklin Monroe’s defense. “… In the third set, we backed our lineup up so that Ashley was in the front row more, and that put her against (Franklin-Monroe’s) shorter middle blocker. At that point we just tried to get her the ball. She was just phenomenal tonight.”
Scott said hitting at sharper angles led to more kills late. She credited her teammates for helping with the record, including freshman setter Miah Monnin, who had a school-record 64 assists to top an old record set by Cordonnier.
Monnin is one of several underclassmen who have grown over the season according to Scott.
“They’ve gotten a little nervous sometimes this year and during some of these tournament games, which is normal,” Scott said. “I think the nerves are starting to go away, and they’re starting to play a little better.”
The teams battled throughout the first set, but Franklin-Monroe scored the last two points to earn a 28-26 victory. Russia had a 20-19 lead late in the second set, but the Jets battled back to take a 22-21 lead. After the Raiders tied it, Franklin-Monroe scored the last three points to close it out.
“In the first two sets, they weren’t doing anything we weren’t expecting,” Watkins said. “We just had to adjust what we were doing a little bit.”
Franklin-Monroe (21-6) held a one- or two-point lead for most of the second set until Russia tied it 21-21. Scott then came up with four big kills on hard spikes to lift the squad to a 25-21 win and kept the match alive.
The Jets built a 5-2 lead early in the fourth set, but Russia scored the next five points, two of which came on kills on hard spikes by freshman middle hitter Kate Sherman. The squad extended its lead to 20-14, but Franklin-Monroe closed the gap late, including by scoring four-straight points to pull within 24-23.
After a timeout, CeCe Borchers came up with a kill on a hard spike to end the set and send the contest to game five.
“We got a little nervous and tensed up a little bit (late), but I just told the girls that if they want to go to regionals, they’ve got to want it,” Watkins said. “They wanted it.”
Now Russia will try to do what it hasn’t the last two years — win a regional semifinal match. The Raiders will try to do it against SCAL rival Fairlawn, which they beat 3-0 in two regular-season games.
“We just have to play our game,” Watkins said. “We’re playing confident and we’re playing quick. I really like our odds to go get a regional win this year.”
Jessica York had 14 kills, two blocks and three aces for Russia. Sherman finished with 11 kills and four blocks and Borchers finished with 11 kills.
Scott had 19 digs for the Raiders while Kendall Monnin had a team-high 40 and Miah Monnin had 16. Ava Daniel had 15 digs and a team-high three aces.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.