While it seems so long ago, coach Ashley Bond pointed out that it was a turning point.
"I honestly remember sitting down and talking with the team and saying we could let these losses define us or we can put them in the past," Bond said. "It pushed us, it really did. But, it did not break us."
Lydia Wiers, a Division I recruit, returned in the fifth match, and the Flashes responded despite a grind it out Sandusky Bay Conference Bay division schedule.
Now, Willard is in the Div. II regional semifinals for the first time since 1985. The Flashes (18-7) take on Wauseon (20-5), winners of the Northwest Ohio Athletic League for the first time since 1993, at 6 p.m. Thursday at Lexington High School.
"It has been super fun and we are all very happy," Wiers said. "At the beginning of the season, we set this as a goal. We wanted to get here. So, I think we are pretty proud of ourselves and how we worked."
Willard is led by Wiers, who has racked up 360 kills and 96 blocks this season after returning from a stress fracture injury. She has tallied 1,219 kills for her career.
"This is my first experience coaching Lydia," Bond said. "All the other girls I have coached in either basketball or junior high volleyball. Coaching Lydia is such a blessing because she is a leader on the court. She is like having another coach on the court. The best part about Lydia is she makes everyone around her better."
She is backed by senior setter Jena Adams, who has 405 assists this season and 1,413 career assists. She had up 733 assists last season.
"We all know what we have to do," Wiers said. "The sets I have been getting are great. Everything we have done sets me up for a lot of kills. I know what spots I have to hit."
Junior Cassidy Crawford has 234 kills this season (658 career), while senior Chloe Wiers has 153 kills. Chloe Weaver is right behind Adams with 404 assists.
"Chloe (Wiers) did not even realize how good she could have been," Bond said. "Last year, she was a role player. This year when Lydia went down hurt, I told Chloe that there was another Wiers on the team. She needed to step up and she carried us when Lydia was down."
Wauseon has won its last six matches. The Indians are led by Lexi Sauber. The senior has put down 412 kills and has 1,083 kills for her career. She is headed to Div. I Bowling Green next season.
"I have four tapes on them and I have watched all four," Bonds said. "They are a solid team, but they have some weaknesses we are going to try to pick apart. We will match up against (Sauber) and put our best defense out there."
Junior Sydney Zirkle backs Sauber with 204 kills while setter Maddie Trejo is the catalyst with 816 assists this season.
"Our biggest thing for ourselves is to realize that it is just another match," Bond said. "It is not a huge match. It is not thinking we are in a regional match. It is a first team to 25 points wins a game match. If we come out and play like we can, we know we have it."
The non-league schedule has set up the Flashes well. Willard faced Lexington, Perkins, Bellevue, and Div. IV regional-bound Tiffin Calvert among its matches.
Inside the conference was perhaps even tougher for the Flashes. They dropped two matches to state-ranked No. 3 Huron, which is in the Div. III regional semifinals. Willard took the opening game when it played at Huron. The Tigers had won 27 of 28 games to start the season at that point.
"I did not tell the team for the first part of the season that we were picked to finish third-to-last in the league by the coaches," Bond said. "To go from that to where we are now shows have tough our league is."
The Flashes also split the two matchups with Oak Harbor — which will face Parma Heights Holy Name in the second match Thursday at Lexington — including a 3-0 win at home on Oct. 2.
"Our game does not change when we move places," Adams said. "We play the same everywhere. We do not get nervous. We like to play under pressure."
Willard enters the regionals after a wild opening three matches of tournament action. The Flashes drew No. 7-seed Lexington at home to begin play. No big deal? Not so much. Not only did the Lady Lex give Willard it's first loss of the season back on Aug. 21, but Lexington jumped out to a 2-0 lead. The Lady Lex also led, 9-6, in Game 3 before the Flashes made the incredible comeback.
"We had to out work them," Adams said. "We had to hustle and be all over the court. We have great team chemistry and I think that helped a lot. We do not get down on each other and we are always there to pick each other up."
Had Willard lost, it would have been the second straight year the Flashes lost in the sectional final at home against a lower-seeded team. Last year, Willard, as a No. 3 seed, lost in five games to No. 7 Bellevue.
"We are fighters," Lydia Wiers said. "We know what we have to do and we know what we want to accomplish. We are ready to fight."
In a district tournament semifinal against Norwalk last Tuesday, Willard lost the opening game and trailed Game 2, 24-23. In danger of again falling behind 2-0 to a quality team, Willard responded and controlled the rest of the match to win in four games.
"I think we have such intelligent kids that they learn from their mistakes and they knew they did not want a repeat from last year," Bond said. "We have three-year and four-year letterwinners all over the court. It is not like we are inexperienced. Their experience stepped up and said we were going to do it. It takes some luck and we got lucky at the right time."
In the district championship, the Flashes avoided the slow start against a Perkins team that had won its last eight matches. Willard won the opening game and led the second game comfortably before the Pirates responded. The Flashes used a variety of hitting and tough defense against Perkins' top hitter Riley Knupke to top the Pirates.
"Our team bonding is incredible," Adams said. "We have sleepovers, we go out to eat a lot, and we do a lot of activities together. That really helps us on the court."
Chloe Wiers noted how fun it is to play with "big sis," Lydia.
"It is pretty fun," Chloe Wiers said. "It is really awesome that we get to play together. The last four years have been so much fun. It is a huge blessing that we are able to be on the court together. It is going to suck when we are not out there together anymore."
Bond noted she was just in junior high when the last Willard team made the regionals in 1985. Adams said her mother was a freshman on that team that beat Celina before falling to Eastwood in Lima in the regional championship.
"I just think it is awesome that we get to be that team," senior Kassidy Lofland said. "This year, I think we are a very dynamic team. We balance each other out."
The winners return at 2 p.m. Saturday back at Lexington for the regional championship.