Solon volleyball was the defending district champion, but the Lady Comets weren’t favored when they collided with Nordonia in a repeat of last year’s title game on Saturday at their home floor.
The Lady Knights entered the match with the top seed, a 21-3 record and 10 straight victories, surrendering just one set during that streak. They were seeking to avenge last year’s loss in a four-set match against Solon on the same stage.
But it was going to take five sets to determine a district champion on Saturday, with No. 2-seed Solon entering the afternoon with a 15-9 record and four straight wins. Not only that, it was going to take extra points in the determining frame.
For the Lady Comets, it was their sixth five-set match of the season, while it was just the third for Nordonia.
“It was a close one, for sure,” Solon second-year head coach Kaylee (Kruse) Rodriguez said. “We had been in situations like that not only this year but last year. So, we have such an experienced team, and I think that helped them with the nerves in the fifth set, because it was definitely a close one, and the crowd was pretty loud in there. So, I’m just proud of them for pulling through.”
The match featured 25 kills by Nordonia 5-foot-9 junior outside hitter Joy Banks, as well as a four-pronged attack of senior hitters from Solon, including 6-foot-2 middle Alex Levi, 17 kills, 5-foot-9 outside Naseem Story, 11 kills, 5-foot-8 outside Simone Tyson, 10 kills, and 6-foot middle McKenna Podracky, nine kills. Junior setter Leah Corrao cashed in with 44 assists.
With the hot hand, Levi had just two errors on 29 attempts for a team-high .517 hitting percentage, including the match-winning kill in the fifth frame to clinch the back-to-back title, 20-25, 25-19, 25-22, 23-25, 16-14.
“We didn’t have Alex Levi in the beginning of our season, who’s been a huge contributor offensively and defensively,” coach Rodriguez said about her middle missing six games with an injury.
Solon was 7-8 midway through the season. Since then, the Lady Comets have now won nine of their past 10 games.
“We kept changing our lineup, and it wasn’t until about halfway, when we started winning, that we started with that new lineup, and that’s what we’ve kept,” Rodriguez said. “And I think it works for our team. It puts us in a couple better positions defensively.”
Against Nordonia, Solon was focused on double-blocking Banks, as well as the Lady Knights’ middles, the entire match, the coach said. In turn, the Lady Comets finished with three solo blocks and eight assisted blocks. Middles Levi and Podracky collected three apiece.
As a team, Solon also finished with 60 digs, including 11 from Tyson, 10 each from Podracky and senior defensive specialist Kate Sanders and nine apiece from senior libero Taylor Bergoch and Corrao – a team effort, to say the least.
“We definitely went into the game knowing that Nordonia was a super athletic team,” Rodriguez said. “Their outside, Joy Banks, we were prepping for her. She’s a great player. But they have a super athletic front row. So, they have a good offense, and they’re a super-aggressive serving team as well. So, we practiced doing a lot of blocking and defense to prepare for them.”
While Nordonia recorded 105 points in the match, 17 came off serve receive errors by the Lady Comets. Conversely, Solon had 14 aces, including four each from Sanders and senior Amanda Uguccini and three apiece from Bergoch and Corrao.
“We actually started the first game with a lead, but they had a service run and fought their way back to 12-12, and it was back and forth a little bit, before they took it at the end there,” Rodriguez said. “I think we stopped playing our game, took a little off the ball and weren’t as aggressive to kind of let them pull back into that game.”
The Lady Comets answered by taking the next two sets, 25-19, 25-22, to hand Nordonia just its third best-of-five deficit of the season. But the Lady Knights answered in the fourth set, 25-23, to force the first-to-15 final frame.
When set matches are close and teams are deep into the postseason, high school volleyball coaches tend to stray away from making any major adjustments between sets, often because it sends a lack-of-confidence message to their players. Sometimes minor tweaks are made, but the focus is usually on better execution.
“We just told the girls to play for each other, play for the team, use each other out there,” Rodriguez said. “We were basically telling them to play their game. Don’t try to play safe. Don’t let the crowd affect how you’re playing. Just keeping going up, keep swinging and keep being aggressive, because that’s when we play our best. So, we don’t really make a ton of tweaks.”
Rodriguez also stressed that the experience of Solon’s veteran back row had the superior play and that defense would win the title, especially with Nordonia’s athletic front line hitting to different spots on the floor.
But really the veteran leadership across the entire rotation, with seven returning players who had starting or significant roles on last year’s 22-6 state final-four campaign, pushed the Lady Comets to the finish line, the coach said.
“Obviously, Nordonia had a better record than us in the regular season, and they were the No. 1 seed, but I don’t think that discouraged our girls at all,” Rodriguez said. “If you look at our schedule, we played a tough schedule. A lot of our losses this year came early. So, I think that our confidence was kind of where it needed to be going into that game. We knew it was going to be a battle going into it, but our girls came in ready to fight, and it paid off.”
Up next, Solon will play Archbishop Hoban (17-6) in the regional semifinals at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Hudson. The winner will play either Riverside (19-5) or Canton GlenOak (24-1) in the regional final at 2 p.m. Saturday at Hudson.