For the second time in four years, the Monroeville volleyball team lost a tough, five-game Division IV state semifinal match inside the Wright State University Nutter Center on Thursday.
Three years ago, the Eagles came here for the first time in program history. With three six-foot hitters that all went on to stand out in NCAA Division II — it felt like a once-in-a generation type team from this small village situated on U.S. 20.
Not only did Monroeville sustain a solid program that returned to the Final Four this season — but it looked like a team that belonged here.
That is probably going to be tough for some to read, given how agonizingly close the Eagles were to reaching Saturday’s state championship match. Some may simply dismiss it, noting they lost in five games both times with no difference in match length.
But don’t just take my word for it. Two accomplished head coaches certainly agreed following Thursday’s match.
“When you take a team for the first time, it’s really, really special,” Monroeville coach Kendra Snook said. “And don’t get me wrong, this experience is special every time. But these kids weren’t nervous. They knew what to expect.”
Despite just three seniors on the roster, Monroeville’s predominantly group of underclassmen weren’t overwhelmed by the bright lights or the size of the court. Even when things got tough down the stretch, it didn’t appear the Eagles played tight or nervous. New Bremen was just better late in the match.
“Three years ago we pretty much got demolished Game 1 (25-11 vs. Jackson Center) and then were able to come back and compose ourselves,” Snook said. “We didn’t have that this year. I think that was a huge thing. Their confidence that they belong here.”
New Bremen head coach Diana Kramer was asked if her team played nervous or tight early. Instead, she was quick to note it was more about how good Monroeville looked.
“Going into this match we were probably the favorites, but they came ready to play and put us in really tough situations,” Kramer said. “They had 11 blocks, and most of those were in the first two games.
“We struggled because Monroeville played really well,” she added. “They were up and touching everything and frustrating our hitters. They deserve a lot of credit.”
It’s hard to pinpoint one reason how or why Thursday’s match changed. Momentum is huge in all sports — but especially big in the rally scoring era of volleyball.
New Bremen came in as the defending state champions from the greatest small-school conference in the history of Ohio high school athletics, the Midwest Athletic Conference.
The Cardinals came out in Game 3 like an accomplished prize fighter that had to answer the bell for the next round — and they swung hard in finding holes on the floor for momentum-changing kills.
New Bremen trailed 14-7 in Game 2, but battled back to briefly take a lead, then went back-and-forth down the stretch in a 25-23 loss to fall behind 2-0. It almost seemed like the Cardinals found their spark there despite the setback.
The Eagles were on their heels the rest of the match, but again showed signs of getting back the momentum from how well it played in taking the 2-0 lead.
With a fresh start in Game 5, the Eagles again fell behind fast. It was a 12-5 deficit and it appeared set in stone from there.
But Monroeville still found a way to make it interesting, trimming the deficit to 13-10. And, initially, a hit was ruled inbounds for a 13-11 deficit — but it was overturned correctly as a tipped ball and the point — and essentially the match — went to New Bremen.
Two evenly-matched teams played a very streaky match. Monroeville again on the wrong end side of the scoreboard.
“Kendra is a phenomenal coach and they came out ready to play,” Kramer said. “I’m heartbroken for their team that it’s over for them, because neither team deserved to lose today.”
Looking ahead, there will be plenty of potential roadblocks ahead, as usual. The success from a year before never determines what happens in the future. Programs like St. Paul and Buckeye Central will make just winning the district a big challenge still.
At the same time, seeing how close this team came to bringing back state hardware, it’s hard not to sense a different vibe. Losing elite back row defense in Stacia Stieber won’t be easy.
But all five hitters are back, as is setter Camryn Hedrick. Thursday was also a valuable experience that can’t be taught. If the Eagles get this far again — everyone involved will know what the next step is.
“I think these kids are going to be hungry for more,” Snook said. “We haven’t gotten past the semifinals yet down here; five games twice … but they will hungry to get back here and try and get to the finals.”