TROY — The Shelby County Athletic League long ago separated itself as southwest Ohio’s dominant small-school conference. The league has reached new heights in the last decade by producing at least three district champions in eight of the last 10 years and three state champion teams.
Fairlawn played a big part in establishing the league’s tradition, as the Jets made frequent deep tournament runs under former longtime coach Wade Wilhelm.
In recent years, though, tournament wins have been rare for the Jets. Some years, any wins period have been rare.
And though the start of this season under first-year coach Ashley (Francis) Miller wasn’t what she and the rest of the team hoped, the end has established the team as one of southwest Ohio’s best again.
Fairlawn beat Miami Valley Christian 25-13, 25-16, 25-16 in a Division IV district final on Saturday at Troy High School’s Trojan Activities Center to earn its first district title since 2006. It capped off a big day for SCAL teams in Troy, as Fort Loramie and Russia also earned championships earlier in the day.
“This has still been a goal for us, even though we struggled a little bit (in regular season),” Miller, a 2004 Fairlawn graduate, said. “These girls have been working towards this. We’re young, and we’re coming into our own now. These girls are taking their roles and rolling with it. The whole team is doing what needs to get done.”
The Jets (14-12) advance to face Russia in a Div. IV regional semifinal on Thursday at Northmont’s High School’s Thunderdome. The Raiders beat Franklin-Monroe 3-2 in Saturday’s second district final in Troy.
Fairlawn’s program gradually plummeted after its last district title. The squad reached new lows in a disastrous 2017 campaign in which several players quit, citing issues with a previous coaching staff.
The squad rebounded and finished 12-11 last year under Jodi Hickman, and Miller had high hopes heading into her first season at the helm.
The Jets hovered around .500 all season and went 2-10 in league play. They lost their last three league games, including a 3-2 loss to Houston (7-16) at home on Oct. 3.
“I said right at the beginning of tournament to the girls that if we go one game at a time, we could do well,” Miller said.
After losing their regular season finale to Jackson Center on Oct. 8 to drop to 10-12, the squad opened tournament play with a 3-1 win over Springfield Emmanuel Christian and followed two days later with a win over Covington.
Then came last Tuesday’s upset — a 3-2 come-from-behind win over Lehman Catholic, which finished the season 20-5. It showed the quick improvement of the Jets, which had lost to the Cavaliers 2-0 in Lehman’s invitational on Aug. 31.
“They have really grown,” Miller said. “Our whole team has grown. …We struggled a little bit throughout the season, but we’re playing volleyball now. These girls have really matured. They just don’t want to quit. It was unreal to see how they didn’t quit against Lehman. It was unreal volleyball. I’m proud of them.”
MaCalla Huelskamp, now a senior, was one of the several players that quit in 2017. She said she’s been amazed to see how far the program has come since that 4-19 season.
“Worlds of difference,” Huelskamp, a four-year varsity player, said. “This is the best team ever. Being friends with everyone on the team is so great, and Coach Miller is just my favorite.”
Miller coached at Covington for three years earlier in the decade and returned to her alma mater in 2017 to coach the district’s eighth grade team, which featured many current varsity players. She served as an assistant for Hickman last year and took over the program earlier this year.
The sophomore class that Miller coached in middle school two years ago has helped lift the program. Middle hitter Jessie Abke entered Tuesday’s action with a team-best 281 kills and was named second team all-SCAL earlier this month. Middle hitter Lonna Heath (184 kills) and setter Taylor Lessing (713 assists) were honorable mention selections.
“They’re all great,” Huelskamp, who is playing at libero for the first time, said. “Jessie Abke is probably one of the best players I’ve ever played with. Lonna is right up there too. They’re just the best.”
Abke led the squad with 14 kills on Saturday while Heath had 11. Lessing had 32 assists.
A big reason for the team’s dominance over Miami Valley Christian (14-8) was junior Kylee Ginter, who had nine kills and nine blocks.
“She was unreal,” Miller said. “She’s really starting to play well.”
The Lions went on a 6-3 run in the first game to pull within 14-9, but the Jets quickly pulled away from there. They pulled out big early in the second game and cruised and did the same in the third game. Though Miami Valley Christian did make a late push in the third set to pull within three points, Fairlawn pulled away fast.
“The want to win is there,” Huelskamp said. “We want to be here. We don’t want it to stop. We want to go all the way.”
To do that, the Jets will have to beat Russia, which they lost to by 3-0 scores in two Shelby County Athletic League matches in regular season, including a 25-18, 25-16, 25-23 loss in Russia on Oct. 1.
“We just have to have a good drive,” Huelskamp said. “We’re just going to want it more than them, and I think it will show.”
Miller said it will be another opportunity for the squad to showcase its improvement.
“We’re going to go in and work these next three, four days and do what we’ve got to do,” Miller said.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.