CLAYTON — The journey was different the last three years for New Bremen’s volleyball team, but the final destination was the same. This year with COVID-19 affecting many aspects of life, even the final destination isn’t the same.
The goal for the Cardinals is unchanged, though: win a state championship.
New Bremen (24-3) is aiming for its third Division IV state title in four years this weekend after beating Russia 3-1 on Saturday to earn its fourth consecutive regional championship.
“It’s remarkable,” New Bremen coach Diana Kramer said. “It’s something kids dream about all the time. For it to happen four years in a row, it’s just so humbling.”
The Cardinals will play Newark Catholic (20-5) in a state semifinal on Saturday morning at Vandalia-Butler’s Student Activity Center. If victorious, they will face the winner of Tiffin Calvert vs. Dalton in the Div. IV state championship match on Sunday afternoon.
“Everybody’s got to be all in for us to win,” Kramer said. “That’s our motto. Everybody’s got to be all in, from the person on the court to the coaches to the community to the bench to everybody. If everybody’s all in and everybody does their job to the best of their ability, I’m confident moving forward.”
The state finals are normally held at Wright State University’s Nutter Center. Due to crowd size restrictions currently in place per state government orders and failed negotiations between the Ohio High School Athletic Association and Wright State for a discounted venue fee, the finals have been moved to Butler’s 4,500-seat gym.
Kramer said the location — which is slightly closer to New Bremen than Northmont High School, where last weekend’s regional was played — isn’t a concern. She’s happy the squad is able to play for another state title after an offseason of uncertainty due to the pandemic.
“Every year, it’s different at the high school level, because you’ve got different girls and a different vibe,” Kramer said. “It’s a different vibe this year with everything, but essentially it’s the same going through sectionals, districts.
“Even as the opponents change, our system and how we prepare remains the same every single day. So while there are a lot of things that are different, those things are the same.”
The squad returned last year and beat Fort Loramie 3-1 to win its second championship in program history.
This regular season brought a couple more stumbles than last year. The squad finished 28-1 a year ago, with its lone loss a 3-2 setback to MAC rival St. Henry.
This year, the squad lost a nonconference match with Fort Loramie 3-1 and closed regular-season play in mid-October by losing consecutive matches against MAC rivals New Knoxville and Fort Recovery 3-0.
The Cardinals have won five straight since (including a 3-0 district final win over New Knoxville) and have lost just two sets in that time.
“It’s remarkable when you’re in this position where you’ve had a lot of success in the past and people want to beat you so badly,” Kramer said. “People always give us their best game, and it’s very humbling, because everybody is out to give us their best shot, and we’ve just got to keep learning and finding a way to get better every single day.
“One of the things we’ve talked about this year is growth isn’t linear. Sometimes you know you’re on the up, sometimes you go down. It’s all about how you finish and how you handle that adversity.”
The squad has relied on depth each of the last four years and has as much as ever this year. Four players have made over 160 kills, five have 38 or more aces, four have 48 or more blocks and three have 126 or more digs.
Second-year starting outside hitter Josie Reinhart has made a team-high 317 kills and 75 aces while second-year starting defensive specialist Diana Heitkamp had made a team-high 358 digs and 94 aces. Freshman Olivia Heitkamp has made a team-high 83 blocks and three-year starter Claire Pape has made a team-high 813 assists.
The Cardinals got their toughest test of the tournament early in Saturday’s regional final match against Russia.
The teams played even early in the first game but New Bremen pulled away late to a 25-19 victory. The teams again played even in the second set, but Russia pulled out to a 17-14 lead after a soft spike by Miah Monnier and then took a four-point lead after a New Bremen hitting error.
Two more New Bremen errors allowed the Raiders to take a 20-14 lead, and the teams then traded points to a 25-18 score.
Russia took an early 7-5 lead in the third game but New Bremen scored five of the next eight to tie it, then took an 11-10 lead after a Russia hitting error.
The teams traded points to a 16-15 score, but a hitting error and a defensive error by the Raiders gave New Bremen an 18-15 lead. The Cardinals then pulled away to a 25-19 win.
“Those first couple of sets, we weren’t able to score points off of our serve,” Kramer said. “It was side-out game by both teams, back-and-forth, back-and-forth. …We got better as the match wore on and were able to go on some runs, and that just gives us a lot of confidence going forward that we can accomplish what we want to accomplish.”
New Bremen jumped out to an early 10-4 lead in the fourth game and cruised to a 25-10 win.
“It was just a mental thing,” Russia coach Aaron Watkins said of the fourth game. “You’re not going to dig a hole like that at this level and get yourself back in it.”
The Raiders finished with 29 attack errors compared to 16 by New Bremen.
“We made more errors than we wanted,” Watkins said. “You can’t win games at this level when you make those sorts of errors.”
Russia finishes 22-5 overall. The Raiders captured their fourth consecutive district title and advanced to a regional final for the second consecutive year.
“The girls did phenomenal,” Watkins said. “This is one of the best if not the best team Russia has had. …Next year, we’re going to be looking for leadership, but we have a lot of talent back, and hopefully we can get over this hurdle.”
The Raiders will lose three seniors to graduation: libero Kendall Monnin, outside hitter Ashley Scott and defensive specialist Lauren Monnier.
Monnin and Scott were both first team all-Shelby County Athletic League selections.
“We’re going to beyond miss them,” Watkins said. “They’re going to be beyond impossible to replace.”
A maximum of 600 fans are being allowed per match this weekend at Butler. Participating teams are being allotted 292 tickets for each match, and sales are being conducted on the OHSAA’s website. Fans must have a code given to participating schools’ administrators to be able to purchase tickets online.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.