For a stretch of eight years, the Norwalk volleyball program always had a view from the top. They took on all comers in the Northern Ohio League, and then the Lake Division of the Sandusky Bay Conference.
The stretch of eight consecutive league championships included a winning streak of 76 matches.
Those impressive accomplishments also come with a different perspective. Not since the current eight-player senior class in 2019 was in the second grade had Norwalk not won a league title.
Until last season.
With a roster that included no seniors, Norwalk was two points away from forcing a decisive fifth game in the SBC Lake finale at Bellevue in a match that was for a league title share.
Instead, it lost that match in four games. Then, two weeks later, Norwalk suffered another tough, four-game loss it had a chance to win in a season-ending Division II district semifinal loss vs. Willard.
Now, with the entire roster back from a 14-11 finish — the first double-digit loss season in 10 years — a veteran senior class looks to get back to what has been a championship norm.
“When these seniors were in the fifth grade, Norwalk played for the state championship,” second-year coach Sarah Kipp said. “That’s always been a goal of theirs. They saw that and remember that.
“What coach doesn’t want to be scheduling practice in November? I think you always set high goals and expectations,” she added. “But I think when you are in preparation for those goals, you take things one day at a time.”
A balanced attack at the net will start with senior Delaney Thomas and juniors Carly Bilton and Marie Clouse. Senior Claire Kelley and junior Mya Neuberger will be Kipp’s top hitters on the outside.
“I think we can expect balance any night, because we have any number of hitters on the floor at any point who can put it away,” Kipp said. “We do a nice job of distributing the ball. It’s not a one-gun lineup.
“It’s nice seeing even play and distributing it across the floor,” she added. “It helps keep the other team guessing as to who will hit the ball.”
Senior Olivia Ward at setter and senior Lindsey Koenig at libero will be critical to the team’s success, Kipp said.
“Lindsey Koenig’s defense … I think she just gets after the ball,” Kipp said. “She is the type of kid who works hard and pushes herself. Lindsey has high expectations for herself, and that shows.
“Liv is another one who works exceptionally hard to get the ball where it needs to be,” she added. “And when it’s not there, the hitters don’t get a kill — and she takes that personally. Those two kids kind of carry us, along with Claire on the outside.”
Seniors Elyse Balduff (defensive specialist/setter) and Haleigh Skinner (defensive specialist) are also again expected to be heavy contributors. Juniors Emmie Horner (defensive specialist) and Ella Foster (right side/defensive specialist) are also returning letterwinners.
“We run a quick offense, we’re small — but we play big,” Kipp said. “But we run a quick offense so that we can get up and hit the ball quickly so the defense can’t get there and block as easily.”
Ward, Koenig, Bilton and Thomas each were on the second team All-SBC Lake team. Others on the varsity roster include senior Ally Fry (defensive specialist) and junior Jaylee Tyler (defensive specialist/setter).
With eight seniors, Kipp is expecting a level of experience to lead to playing calm under pressure when things get tight.
However, the coach stopped short of saying the offseason and summer was smoother because of all the upperclass players returning.
“Just because we’ve moved kids around quite a bit,” she said. “Marie is struggling with an injury here at the start, so a lot of kids have moved around.
“Our second game against Edison (on Tuesday) was a new rotation that we had never used before,” Kipp added. “I think we were seeing things start to click, but I think sometimes it’s really hard to play with a lot of kids who are the same age.”
As for the SBC Lake, Kipp is expecting both Bellevue and Perkins to field strong teams, while Tiffin Columbian is coming off a 15-win season a year ago as well.
“It will be competitive, and really our schedule — it’s our sectional and district that we play all season long,” Kipp said. “You can’t take any one team for granted in our league. The balance of our league almost forces you into that ‘one day at a time’ approach, which is good for us.”
After Thursday’s match vs. Oregon Clay, Norwalk will play all league matches through Sept. 26, with the exception of its annual host Invitational on Aug. 31. Teams include Willard, Tiffin Calvert, Mantua Crestwood and Chardon Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin. Calvert is the defending Div. IV state champions, while Willard reached a regional title match, Crestwood advanced to a regional semifinal — and NDCL won back-to-back state titles in 2014-15 in Div. II.
2019 season schedule
Aug. 20: vs. Edison, W, 3-1
Aug. 22: vs. Oregon Clay, 7 p.m.
Aug. 27: vs. Tiffin Columbian, 7 p.m.
Aug. 29: at Clyde, 7 p.m.
Aug. 31: Norwalk Invitational (Willard, Chardon NDCL, Tiffin Calvert, Mantua Crestwood), 9 a.m.
Sept. 3: at Perkins, 7 p.m.
Sept. 10: at Sandusky, 7 p.m.
Sept. 12: vs. Vermilion, 7 p.m.
Sept. 17: vs. Bellevue, 7 p.m.
Sept. 19: at Tiffin Columbian, 7 p.m.
Sept. 24: vs. Clyde, 7 p.m.
Sept. 26: vs. Perkins, 7 p.m.
Sept. 28: at Perrysburg Invitational, 10 a.m.
Oct. 3: vs. Sandusky, 7 p.m.
Oct. 8: at Vermilion, 7 p.m.
Oct. 10: at Bellevue, 7 p.m.