CLAYTON — Russia outside hitter Ashley Scott hasn’t forgotten how intimidating it felt when the team played in a regional match at Northmont’s Thunderdome for the first time in 2017.
“It was scary for us freshmen and sophomores,” Scott said. “It’s big.”
The Raiders have been back each year since and will try to accomplish a new goal on Saturday: leave the Thunderdome with a gold trophy and state berth.
They’ll have to pass the New Bremen challenge to do it.
Russia (22-4) will face defending Division IV state champion New Bremen (23-3) in a regional final on Saturday at Northmont. The winner will advance to a state semifinal to be played next Saturday at Vandalia-Butler.
Aside from last year, the Cardinals also won the Div. IV state title in 2017 and finished as runner-up in 2018. They’ve beaten the Raiders in early regular-season matches each of the last four years, including a 25-18, 25-21, 25-12 win on Aug. 25 in Russia.
“They’re the same this year,” Russia coach Aaron Watkins said of New Bremen. “Top to bottom they’re athletic. Diana (Kramer) is one of the best coaches in the state. They’re going to be ready.
“They’ve changed their lineup since we played them and we’ve changed our lineup, so I’m not going to read into what we did the first game of the year, and I don’t think she will, either.”
It’s the second consecutive year Russia has advanced to a regional final after the program did so for the first time last year.
The squad is back in a regional final after beating Shelby County Athletic League rival Fort Loramie 3-2 in a semifinal on Thursday at Northmont.
It was a breakthrough tournament win for Russia against the Redskins. The Raiders lost to Fort Loramie in regional tournament matches two of the last three years, including a 3-1 loss in a regional final last year.
“It’s amazing,” Scott said. “I’m so glad we did it, especially my senior year. I’ve been waiting for this for four years. We’ve been losing to them in tournament. It’s amazing. No words.
“… I think our team finally grew (enough) to win (at regionals). We’ve been here, we know what it’s like.”
Like Russia, New Bremen is deep and experienced. Four players have over 150 kills for the Cardinals, five have 38 or more aces, four have 44 or more blocks and three have 118 or more digs.
“I think if we play like we did against Loramie, we can win,” Scott said. “I’m really confident with our team right now. We’ve been playing a lot of hard teams these last couple of weeks and I feel like we’ve gotten a lot of hard practice in.”
Scott, who had 18 kills and nine digs on Thursday, is one of two seniors that play for Russia. The bulk of the squad’s players are underclassmen, including sophomore middle hitter Kate Sherman, who led the team with 20 kills and four blocks.
While Sherman and most of the team’s sophomores picked up experience last season, Watkins said he knew the team was facing an experience deficit compared to Fort Loramie, which finished as D-IV runner up to New Bremen a year ago.
Watkins said playing well early and staying calm during any Fort Loramie runs would be key for Russia to win on Thursday — and the squad did both.
Fort Loramie led just twice in the first two sets, which Russia won 25-21 and 25-23. The Redskins pulled even at 15-15 in each game, but the Raiders pulled away each time. They went on a 6-1 run in the first set to take control, and after Fort Loramie took a 21-19 lead in the second game, Russia scored four straight points.
“Getting an early lead in both really helped our confidence,” Scott said. “I think (our younger players) could see it and get a taste of what it felt like, and they knew we could beat them again.”
Russia took an early lead in the third game, but Fort Loramie scored seven of nine points to take a 15-12 lead. The Raiders scored the next two points, but Fort Loramie then scored four straight and pulled away to a 25-19 win.
The teams played to a 12-12 tie in the fourth set, but Fort Loramie scored three straight points and ran away to a 25-19 win.
“In the third and fourth set, our serve receive kind of lost us those games because we couldn’t get that first ball in system and they were getting it over right away and getting that first point,” Scott said. “That was getting us in those holes. In the fifth set we did better at that.”
“I really think we came out and executed well in the first and second set,” Watkins said. “I really think we used a lot of our energy then and were a little flat that third and fourth set.”
With Simone Puthoff serving, Russia scored the first three points of the fifth set. Fort Loramie pulled even at 3-3 with a kill by senior middle hitter Kenzie Hoelscher, and the teams then traded points to a 7-7 tie.
“Getting those first three points was huge,” Scott said. “It’s good to get momentum and be ahead even if they come back. That helped fire up our crowd too, and they were loud the rest of the way. Our crowd helped a lot.”
Miah Monnin came up with a kill on a soft spike to give the squad an 8-7 lead, then Fort Loramie sent a spike out of bounds to push the lead to two points.
After a timeout, the Redskins sent another spike out of bounds, and Sherman and sophomore outside hitter Cece Borchers followed by teaming up on a block to give Russia an 11-8 lead. The Raiders pulled away from there to a 15-10 win.
“This was big for everyone,” Watkins said. “These sophomores in junior high were 24-0 in league (play) and they lost both times in the championship match of (the SCAL) tournament to Fort Loramie. Last year, they lost in regional finals to Fort Loramie.
“Winning the fifth set tonight was such a mental hurdle for not only my sophomores, but all my girls. I’m so proud they were able to.”
Now comes the New Bremen hurdle.
“I really like how we’re playing and where we’re at,” Watkins said. “If we come in and play our game and execute, I like our chances.”
Hoelscher, who was named the SCAL player of the year, led the Redskins with 27 kills. She is one of nine seniors for the Redskins, which finish 23-4. Among the other seniors the squad will lose to graduation is setter Maya Maurer, who was also a first team all-SCAL selection.
“I love this team,” Fort Loramie coach John Rodgers said. “I had so much fun with this team. This loss is upsetting and it will hurt for a while, but the great memories this team has made will last forever. I know the girls are upset right now, but that’s something they’ll treasure as they get older, the memories they made with their teammates.
“… We didn’t execute very well today, but at the same time, you’ve got to give credit to Russia for taking us out of our game. They’d probably say the same thing about us. The first two sets, they did it to us. The next two sets, we did it to them. Then it comes down to that fifth set, and once again, we just didn’t execute. We hit balls out of bounds and stuff like that; we gave them as many points as they earned in the fifth set.”
New Bremen 3, Tri-Village 1
New Bremen earned a spot in its fifth consecutive regional final by beating Tri-Village 25-11, 25-13, 18-25, 25-18 in the first regional semifinal on Thursday at Northmont.
Josie Reinhart led the Cardinals with 22 kills while Kaylee Freund had 11. Diana Heitkamp led the team with 27 digs and four aces and Claire Pape had 37 assists.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.