By SCOTT COTTOS
McCOMB — Kendra Parmenter detected apprehension from her players when she took over as McComb’s volleyball coach.
After all, she was a recent graduate of Bluffton University and was replacing Dave Reinhart, a member of the Ohio High School Volleyball Coaches Hall of Fame who had retired after guiding the Panthers to three straight appearances in the Division IV regional finals and state-tournament appearances in 2013 and 2014.
Bluffton’s career kills leader boldly promised her new players that she would lead them back to the state tournament.
Now, just look at who’s back.
The Panthers, who fell in the state semifinals three years ago before finishing as state runner-up the next season, leave today for Dayton, where they will play in Friday’s 2 p.m. Division IV state semifinal against last year’s state runner-up, New Philadelphia Tuscarawas Central Catholic, at Wright State University’s Ervin J. Nutter Center.
The winner between McComb (26-2), ranked third in the final coaches association poll, and eighth-ranked Central Catholic (25-2) will return to the Nutter Center for Saturday’s 3 p.m. state title contest against the winner of Friday’s noon semifinal between top-ranked defending champion Jackson Center (27-0) and No. 14 Dalton (25-2).
For Parmenter, guiding the Panthers into the state tournament is a far cry from her first meeting with them last May.
“I’m only 22,” she said immediately after her team’s four-set victory over No. 2 and previously unbeaten Norwalk St. Paul in last Saturday’s regional championship match at the Elida Fieldhouse. “Some of them are 18. At first, they did look at me like, ‘What does she know?’ Every high-schooler goes through that stage. I’m glad they trusted me. And they continue to remind me of that trust. They took a leap of faith and I’m glad I could be a part of this.”
McComb senior Nora Hemminger said after the match that Parmenter had passed her test with flying colors.
“Dave taught us a lot,” she said. “We just carried that over into this year, and she did help us. She’s good. She had a lot of experience playing.”
Parmenter, a graduate of Grove City High School, encountered pressure as a player. But it’s a different ballgame to succeed a coaching legend who won five Division IV state titles at Hopewell-Loudon and guided teams from two schools to 10 state tournaments.
“I had big shoes to fill,” she said on Wednesday before her squad’s practice. “Being a college athlete, you go through a lot of adversity. I’ve been through it. I’ve done it. But on the coaching side, I’ve figured out it’s a lot different. I just stay positive, and if I’ve needed someone to talk to, I’ve had that support system to work things out.
“I did have a target on my back, per se. I think I have done a good job, and the girls have done a good job of trusting me and being able to understand me in a way. So, I think all in all it’s been successful.”
Parmenter inherited a team with seven seniors who she said are close friends and have been at the core of a season that has included no internal drama.
“We’ve been together since middle school, most of the seniors,” setter Loryn Huffman, the Blanchard Valley Conference player of the year, said. “We’re just really excited to get back and do our best.”
Senior libero Brittani Harden said this year’s state bid has a different feel from those of the past two.
“This is definitely the most excited I’ve ever been,” she said. “We’ve already been down there a couple of times, so I’m surprised at how excited I am. I think it’s just because it’s our last chance and it’s the last week we’ll all play volleyball together.”
MaKenna Babb, a senior hitter and defensive specialist who will play at Wheeling Jesuit University, holds the team lead in aces with 55 and digs with 411. Senior middle hitter Molly Leppelmeier, a 6-foot-2 track and field signee with Purdue University, leads in kills (252) and blocks (78). Huffman has distributed a team-high 776 assists and Hemminger leads in serve receptions with 283.
McComb will go in without having been able to acquire film of Central Catholic, but Parmenter believes her team is capable of beating any opponent if it plays at the level at which it did against St. Paul.
“We’re kind of just taking this experience and having fun with it,” she said. “We’ve made it this far. Why not enjoy it while it’s here?
“We know that they have a set of sisters who are pretty good. That’s who we’re going to target the most, I guess. We know that they have one solid server and we know that their defense is good.”
Coach Michele Gilland’s daughters, 5-10 junior Alexis and 6-foot senior Sydney, lead the Saints.
Alexis Gilland’s 329 kills and 60 aces are team highs, and Sydney Gilland has handed out a team-leading 502 assists and ranks second in kills with 310.
Babb said she’d like to finish her high school career by completing the Panthers’ three-year state progression from semifinalists to runners-up to champions.
“Hopefully we can finish it out this year,” she said. “As long as we play with our hearts and believe in each other like we did against Norwalk St. Paul, I believe that we can beat anybody.”