CLAYTON — Russia volleyball coach Aaron Watkins has set a theme the summer before each season since taking over the program four years ago. After losing a big senior class last year that had a hand in two of the program’s best seasons, Watkins set the motto for this year’s young group as “passing expectations.”
The Raiders passed expectations by accomplishing a program first on Thursday.
Russia beat Shelby County Athletic League rival Fairlawn 25-10, 25-18, 25-16 in a Division IV regional semifinal at Northmont High School’s Thunderdome.
It’s the first regional victory in the program’s history. After winning district titles each of the last two years, Russia struggled in the regional round, losing to Fort Loramie 3-0 in 2017 and Jackson Center 3-1 last year.
“I was hoping we’d get back to regionals this year, but they’ve been phenomenal,” Russia coach Aaron Watkins said of his squad. “They work their butts off and they’re a great group. There’s a great future ahead of them.”
Russia’s win sets up an all-SCAL regional final. The Raiders advance to face Fort Loramie, which beat Lancaster Fairfield Christian 3-0 in Thursday’s first semifinal at Northmont. The squads will return to the Thunderdome and face off in a Div. IV regional final at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
“We’re going to have to play pretty near perfect,” Watkins said of what it will take to beat Fort Loramie. “We have to pass well to stay in system and try to get them out of system and keep them on their toes as much as possible.”
Despite the squad’s relative youth, the Raiders (17-10) looked like the experienced squad against the upstart Jets on Thursday. They scored 11 consecutive points in the first set and went on a 10-4 run in the second set to establish control. They beat Fairlawn 3-0 in both SCAL regular season matches.
“We talked to the girls about just doing what we have been doing,” Watkins said. “Getting a good pass, keep getting good sets, keep them on their toes and serve aggressively. I think we did that.”
Senior middle hitter Jessica York, junior middle hitter Ashley Scott and junior libero Kendall Monnin were the team’s only players that saw significant action in last season. The team, which has six freshmen and three sophomores, has relied on several underclassmen this season.
“I had some nerves at school earlier today but once I got out there in warmups, it was pretty good,” Russia freshman setter Miah Monnin said. “We came together as a team and played as a team.”
It was the fifth consecutive win for Russia, which will try to do on Saturday what it could not in regular season: beat Fort Loramie. The squad lost twice to the Redskins by 3-0 scores in SCAL matches in regular season, including a 25-8, 25-9, 26-24 loss in Russia on Sept. 19.
“We’re ready,” Monnin said. “We just have to play as a team and just give it our all.”
The teams battled to a 5-5 tie in the first game, then Russia scored 11 consecutive points, during which time Fairlawn burned both of its timeouts.
Russia built an early 5-2 lead in the second set, then used a 10-4 run to take a 19-9 lead in the second game. Fairlawn scored five points to pull within 23-16 and then pulled within six, but Ava Daniel and Scott teamed up on a block to end the game.
The Raiders took an early 4-0 lead in the third game. Fairlawn pulled within 9-6, but Russia extended its lead to 16-10 and pulled away from there.
Fairlawn finishes 14-13 overall. The squad hovered around .500 all season but dropped to 10-12 with a 3-0 loss to Jackson Center on Oct. 8. The team won its first four tournament games, including a come-from-behind win over Lehman Catholic (20-5) in a district semifinal on Oct. 22.
“Nobody thought we would make it this far,” first-year Fairlawn coach Ashley Miller said. “This is a great accomplishment for the girls. We just need to improve on this.”
Like Russia, the Jets are young. The team will lose five seniors to graduation, with only one (libero MaCalla Huelskamp) being a starter. The team will return its two biggest scorers in sophomore hitters Jessie Abke and Lonna Heath, who each earned all-SCAL recognition.
“We can keep building off of this next year,” Miller said. “It’s mostly going to be the same group of girls. We’re a young group, and I feel we have a lot of potential. There’s a lot of positives that can come off of this.”
Fort Loramie 3, Lancaster Fairfield Christian 0
The Redskins (25-2) cruised to a 25-9, 25-9, 25-12 victory in the first regional semifinal at Northmont on Thursday to earn a spot in Saturday’s regional final.
“The goal this time of year is just to advance, which we did,” Fort Loramie coach John Rodgers said. “We did some things good and we did some things that we need to work on (Friday) in practice. Overall, we’re getting where we need to be this time of the year.”
The win was the 12th straight for Fort Loramie, which hasn’t lost a set in a month. The squad will try to capture its first regional title since 2014 on Saturday when it faces Russia.
Rodgers said the squad is expecting more of a challenge from the Raiders on Saturday compared two the Redskins’ two 3-0 victories in SCAL play in regular season.
“They’ve improved greatly, and we’re prepared for that,” Rodgers said. “… They will be better. You get to this level after winning this many games in a row, you’re doing things right. Their freshmen have matured and they’ve become volleyball players at this level. When we played them in regular season, maybe they didn’t get the speed of the game yet. They’ve got that now, and we’ve got to be prepared for whatever they’re going to bring at us.”
Fort Loramie led 9-6 on the first game and scored the next six points, the last of which came on a kill by Marissa Meiring. Meiring finished off the set with a kill.
The Redskins took a 4-2 lead early in the second game and then scored the next four points to begin another easy win. After building a 14-6 lead, they scored 11 of the last 14 points to pull away.
The Knights took a 3-0 lead in the third game but Fort Loramie battled back to tie it 5-5 and then went on a 9-2 run to pull away.
Fairfield Christian finishes 16-9 overall.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.