For the first time in 11 years, a team not named Beaumont, Lake Catholic or Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin will represent Northeast Ohio in the state final four of high school volleyball out of the Division II Stow Region.
Thank Gilmour Academy for that.
The young Lady Lancers, with defensive specialist Katelyn Hanchin as the lone senior in a 10-player rotation, knocked off state No. 3-ranked NDCL (18-8) in four sets, 25-15, 27-29, 25-8, 25-19, in the region semifinal last Thursday.
Gilmour Academy then put a sweep on No. 15-ranked Canfield (21-6), according to the coaches poll, 25-20, 25-19, 25-22, in the region championship on Saturday at Stow-Munroe Falls High School. That victory secured the Lady Lancers their program’s first final-fourth berth in Division II.
“It’s a huge deal to every single one of us,” Gilmour 5-foot-10 junior outside hitter Brinn MacLellan said. “I know my class – we’ve never been to a final four before. So, we’re all hungry. We want this a lot. And we’ve been working so hard at practice. In every game, it’s been a fight throughout the whole entire season. We have a really tough schedule to prepare us for these games in the playoffs.
“Nothing can stop us when we’re all together.”
The Lady Lancers, under fifth-year head coach Danny Coughlin, will be making their ninth state final-four appearance when they take on state No. 1-ranked Middletown Bishop Fenwick (26-1) in the semifinals at 6 p.m. Nov. 7 at Wright State University’s Ervin J. Nutter Center in Fairborn, on the northeast side of Dayton.
Gilmour’s previous eight state appearances came in Division III, when it was a big-dance perennial from 2007 to 2016 with five state runner-up finishes and a state championship in 2015.
Since moving up to Division II, Gilmour had its playoff runs stopped short against Beaumont in district final action and Lake Catholic in regional final play the past two years.
“It’s a big accomplishment that now we’re making it as a Division II team,” Gilmour junior libero Emmy Klika said. “We only have one senior, but we’re not looking at it like there’s always next year, because you never know what could happen. We’re just all so excited to finally make it to states that we want to make the best of it. We don’t just want to go down and lose in the semifinals. Our goal is to bring home a state championship.”
Entering the postseason ranked No. 7 in the coaches poll, Gilmour improved to 21-6 after defeating Canfield in the region championship on Saturday.
Three of the Lady Lancers’ losses in the regular season came against No. 3-ranked NDCL and No. 4-ranked Lake Catholic (17-8), who battled out a five-set match in their district championship, 21-25, 25-15, 19-25, 26-24, 15-12. NDCL and Lake are always two of the top teams in the state, but they’ve clashed in district play 10 of the past 11 years with Lake owning a 7-3 advantage in that series.
While Gilmour lost a four-set match against NDCL on Sept. 10, the Lady Lancers have undergone a number of lineup changes since, including moving MacLellan to outside, 6-foot-1 sophomore Kathryn Randorf to middle and 6-foot freshman Anna Rarick to a full-time hitter and away from shared setting duties with junior Ava Nestor.
“That was definitely one of our biggest challenges this season,” MacLellan said. “We’ve gone through about 10 different lineups. I’m normally in the middle, and now I’m on the outside, and I’ve never played outside before this year. It’s been hard, and I’ve had to learn how to make that transition in the span of about three weeks probably.
“It’s just crazy the amount of work we put in, and it’s hard, because sometimes it feels like we have to completely start over. But it doesn’t matter in the end, because it’s the same girls on the court, and we’re all just working together.”
The lineup changes paid off when Gilmour turned the tables against NDCL in regional semifinals play, when 5-foot-10 junior Jocelyn Carter put down 17 kills, Randorf had 14, MacLellan had 10 and 6-foot junior Caroline Rarick and her freshman sister had six apiece.
The third set, which went in Gilmour’s favor, 25-8, was an eye-opener. But Gilmour’s defense, which featured 19 blocks, including nine by Carter and six by Randorf, and 79 digs, including 28 by Klika, is something to marvel at against almost any opponent.
Freshman sister Laney Klika had 11 digs, freshman Rylyn Anderson had 10 digs, setter Nestor had 10 digs, and senior Hanchin had nine digs, but the Lady Lancers’ block is focused on funneling opposing hitters toward the elder Klika.
“I love it,” the elder Klika said. “I like being that one that’s depended on to get the ball up. That’s my job, and that’s what I train for. Before every game, our coaches break down film, come up with a strategy, and our block just tries to get the ball right to me. And I just feel like the block did their job by closing the seams that they were supposed to.”
Some might have felt the semifinal matchup between Gilmour and NDCL was the real regional title game, but the Lady Lancers didn’t want to get ahead of themselves.
Canfield was tested in the regular season and did not advance as far as it did in the playoffs by mistake. Specifically, the Lady Cardinals won a five-set match against state No. 13-ranked Alliance Marlington (23-2) – which had two first-place votes in the coaches poll – for their district title.
“What we keep saying to each other is to never be satisfied,” MacLellan said. “We recognize that that’s a big problem with a lot of the teams we played in the past. Last year, when we lost to Lake in the regional finals, they ended up losing the next round. And NDCL beat Lake this year and then lost to us.
“And we felt the reason why those teams lost is because they were satisfied with their wins. So, after beating NDCL, it was a huge win, don’t get me wrong, but we knew we couldn’t be satisfied.”
Still hungry in the regional title game on Saturday, the Lady Lancers left nothing to chance in that three-set sweep on Canfield.
Randorf led the hitting department with 14 kills, while the younger Rarick collected 10, Carter and MacLellan had eight apiece and the elder Rarick had six. Overall, Gilmour outhit Canfield, 50 kills to 23 kills, with Nestor recording 39 assists complemented by 10 digs.
And Gilmour’s defense again came through with 16 total blocks, including six from Carter, while the elder Klika had 29 digs and her freshmen defensive specialists, Laney Klika and Anderson, came up with 11 apiece.
“As a libero, I’m supposed to lead the back row, and Danny (Coughlin) trusts me to make changes when I need to,” the elder Klika said. “But it’s just really special getting to play with my sister, and obviously with (Hanchin) and (Anderson). We’ve all become really close. It’s just become so easy, and there’s no drama.”
Specifically, Anderson started the season on the freshman team, while Hanchin missed all of last year with an ACL injury.
The Lady Lancers were down, 17-12, in the third set, but MacLellan had a three-point service run to help Gilmour get back within distance. The elder Klika then went on a five-point service run at the end of the frame.
Klika served up the match point, with a back-and-forth rally resulting in a diving dig by Carter for a free ball up at the net. Canfield’s middle attempted to put it down on the first touch, but Gilmour’s Randorf put up a solo block for the final point, 25-22, to clinch the region title and a state final-four berth.
“It was a one-handed block; it was crazy,” MacLellan said. “It was such a long rally and such a cool play, when (Carter) dives, gets the ball, and then (Randorf) blocks it. I started cheering, and then my legs just give out, and I just fell straight to the ground, because it’s just so surreal. I’ve wanted this so bad, and we’ve worked so hard for three years. It was amazing.”
The winner of the Gilmour-Bishop Fenwick state semifinal match on Thursday will play either No. 5-ranked Parma Holy Name (25-2) or No. 12-ranked Sparta Highland (24-4) in the state championship game at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Nutter Center.