After dropping two previous five-game matches, Monroeville found itself in another tight match against New Bremen.
However, the No. 3-ranked Cardinals controlled the fifth game from start to finish and completed an incredible comeback to top the No. 9 Eagles in a Division IV state semifinal on Thursday at the Nutter Center at Wright State University.
Monroeville won the first two games, 25-19, 25-23; then lost the next three by scores of 25-19, 25-20, 15-10.
"We lost our ball control in games three through five, which allowed them to use all of their hitters just like they are so strong at doing," Monroeville coach Kendra Snook said. "When we lose our ball control, we gave them a lot of free balls so they could run their offense effectively."
The Eagles finish their season with a record of 24-4. The Cardinals (24-4) will face No. 13 Tiffin Calvert (25-3) with hopes of a repeat at 11 a.m. Saturday.
"Our ball control was pretty tough in games 1 and 2," Snook said. "The kids kept fighting, just like they have done all year. I am very proud of them that way — but when you are playing a good match like that, the team that has the better ball control and the better defense is going to win the match."
The 2-0 deficit was not something new to New Bremen. The Cardinals trailed by the same margin in the district final to No. 1 St. Henry before winning in five games.
"It helped us in that we knew we could do it," New Bremen coach Diana Kramer said. "I told them going into the third game that they play best-of-five for a reason. Is it in your favor that you're probably going to win when you are down 0-2? Not at all, but we just break it into smaller pieces."
New Bremen, the defending state champions, scored the first point of Game 5 and never trailed. Kylee Brooks responded with one of her team-high 12 kills to tie the game, but the Cardinals won the next four points to prompt a timeout from Snook.
An error by the Eagles out of the timeout pushed the lead to 6-1 before Adrian Barman put down a kill. Errors by Rachel Kremer and Ashton Heitkamp drew Monroeville within 6-4, but a kill from Taylor Paul jumpstarted a three-point run by New Bremen.
Snook used her final timeout of the game, but the Cardinals pushed ahead, 12-5. From there, Kelsie Palmer hit two kills, sandwiched around a kill from freshman Graisyn Yoder. An error by New Bremen's Claire Pape forced Kramer into a timeout. But, Josie Reinhart, Pape, and Macy Puthoff each put down a kill to give the Cardinals the win.
"My message this entire season has been 'Nobody believes in you. Believe in yourself,'" Kramer said. "This dates back to last March. These girls are tough. These girls found a way."
It was the Eagles that took control early. Maura Brown had two kills as Monroeville won the first four points of the match, as Kramer called timeout. Three hitting errors by New Bremen extended the lead to 7-0 and after a kill by Puthoff, the Eagles scored four more points in a row for a 11-1 lead.
The Cardinals settled in from there, playing evenly with Monroeville until a kill by Brown gave the Eagles an 18-8 lead. New Bremen responded with a string of seven of the next eight points to draw with 19-15, and force Snook into a timeout.
A service error by New Bremen, coupled with a big block by Kelsie Palmer righted the ship for the Eagles, but the Cardinals did not go quietly. New Bremen got within 22-19 after a kill by Pape, but two more errors by the Cardinals, plus a kill by Palmer gave Monroeville the early lead.
Game 2 took a similar path to the end result. Brown registered a block while Barman and Palmer blasted kills as the Eagles raced out to an 8-2 lead, again forcing Kramer into a timeout.
The Eagles comfortably maintained that margin of lead and seized a 14-7 lead when Brooks recorded one of her six blocks, but again, New Bremen used a run to threaten Monroeville.
Trailing 15-11, Paul had a kill, Reinhart tallied a block and a four-hit error by the Eagles prompted a timeout by Snook. Kremer put down a kill and Paul served up an ace as the Cardinals took a 17-15 lead.
The Eagles did not buckle under the pressure and later, used a 5-1 run to turn an 18-16 deficit into a 21-19 lead. Paul had a kill and an error on the Eagles tied the game. The game was also tied at 22 and 23 before a double hit error on the Cardinals, coupled with a kill from Barman gave Monroeville the two-game lead.
"We did a nice job of getting in system," Snook said. "We were able to spread out our offense."
The improbable comeback for the Cardinals almost did not happen. Monroeville took a 7-4 lead in Game 3 after a serving error by the Cardinals and a kill from Yoder.
But, as it did all day, New Bremen put a run together that Monroeville did everything it could do to stop. First, the Cardinals won nine out of the next 10 points after the Yoder kill to take a 13-8 lead. A block by Brown halted the run, but only for a moment.
New Bremen continued to use balanced hitting — something it was known for — to attack the Eagles at every opportunity. A kill from Kremer helped the Cardinals seize a 20-11 lead. Monroeville valiantly fought and got back within 20-15 after two errors, but Kremer served an ace, Reinhart registered two kills, and the Eagles committed an error on game point to give New Bremen new life.
The Cardinals controlled Game 4 from start to finish. Monroeville never led in the game and fell behind, 8-3 after a hitting error and ace from Kremer.
New Bremen extended the lead to 10-4, but Monroeville continued to battle and got within 11-9 on a block by Brown. The Cardinals responded and pushed the lead to 18-11. From there, Palmer tallied a kill, Barman served up an ace, and Yoder added a kill to induce a timeout from Kramer.
The Eagles could only get within three points — the last at 23-20, but Puthoff recorded a kill, followed by an error by Monroeville to draw the match even.
"Before Game 5, (the message) was 'Let's play Eagle volleyball. Let's play fierce. Let's play aggressive,'" Snook said. "I felt like we were kind of backing down at some spots. In Games 3 and 4, we were not necessarily playing the aggressive volleyball that we have been playing to get to this point."
A late-season loss on the road at Ashland Crestview can be pointed to as a growing point for the Eagles. Monroeville led two games to none and 24-19 in Game 3 before losing in five games.
"Since Day 1, we thought this was a possibility," Snook said. "I don't think we ever thought this was not a possibility. We have had some hiccups along the way, but it has made us stronger and a better team."
Monroeville setter Camryn Hedrick tallied 45 assists on the day, giving her 1,094 assists for the season. That will unofficially finish second for an individual season in Ohio behind the 1,185 assists that McComb's Loryn Huffman had in 2014.
"Cam has done a really nice job," Snook said. "She has very nice hands. When we get her the ball in system, she can effectively run our offense very, very well. If you don't have a setter, we can't use all five of those hitters. I am very proud of what she has done this year."
Paul topped the Cardinals with 14 kills while Kremer added 12 kills.
Palmer tallied 11 kills while Brown and Yoder each added 10 kills apiece. Senior Stacia Stieber led the team with 28 digs. Barman had 18 digs and five kills. Stieber, Maddie Elmlinger, and Josee Brown are the only seniors for the Eagles.
"I could not be more proud of these kids," Snook said. "We lose three really good defensive players. Offensively, we have everybody back. I think these kids are going to be hungry for me."