By MICHAEL BURWELL
Liberty-Benton will play in a match today that no prior volleyball team in school history has played in before.
The same holds true for its opponent, too.
No. 2-ranked L-B, 26-2 and rolling past teams throughout the season, will square off with No. 17 Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy (21-6) at 2 p.m. today in a Division III state semifinal at Wright State University’s Nutter Center.
“We’re just trying to treat this like any other match,” L-B coach Julie Todd said. “We’re starting practice the same way, ending practice the same way that we always do and just kind of focusing right now on Cincinnati Hills and what we need to do to execute.
“There’s going to be a lot of new emotions for everyone, it’s our first time to experience it. … I don’t think Cincinnati’s been there before, either, so they’re going to be in the same boat as us so we’re kind of glad we get to play a team who’s not been there before either.”
L-B and CHCA will play in the second Division III semifinal today. No. 4-ranked Independence (23-4) and No. 3 Wheelersburg (27-0) will face each other in a semifinal at noon.
The winners will play for a state championship at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Nutter Center.
L-B, which has racked up a 76-5 record that includes a perfect 32-0 mark in the Blanchard Valley Conference over the last three seasons, started the 2019 campaign on a 16-match winning streak. The Eagles lost to two state-ranked Division I teams in the Perrysburg Black and Gold Invitational on Sept. 28 and followed that with 10 straight wins en route to earning its first state tournament berth.
The Eagles have dropped just six sets the entire season, none of which came in BVC play. L-B has only lost one set in six tournament matches so far, a 31-29 opening-set loss to Coldwater in a district final.
“Once we win a game, though, that one’s done and I think just in the back of our mind, we just started keeping Tinora in the back of our mind,” Todd said, referring to the Eagles’ lone loss last year, a four-set defeat to the Rams in a Division III regional final. “Last year, how they ended our season, that we just don’t want to happen again.
“We want to keep winning, so I think that’s just kind of what we are keeping in the back of our mind. I think that first-set loss to Coldwater has meant a lot to us, just to know ‘hey, we can be down and we can still come back.'”
L-B’s offensive firepower has been on full display throughout the season, with five players recording at least 150 kills. The Eagles have 1,125 kills this season, which is the most among the four teams left in Division III.
L-B senior setter Alissa Rhodes has dished off 796 assists this season, has only 11 setting errors in more than 1,600 attempts and has also eclipsed the 2,000 career assist mark.
“I definitely have, truly, an amazing offense. I have so many good hitters that I can go to,” Rhodes said. “In pressure situations, I know I can go to every single one of them. They can all execute when I set them, it all really just depends on the passes before, so I just know that I can trust them to hit it down in a pressure situation.”
Sophomore outside hitter Izzy Granger (6-foot) leads the Eagles with 286 kills, while senior outside hitter Hannah Warrington (5-6) has pounded 212. Freshman outside hitter Karis Willow (6-3) has added 189, while senior middle hitters Schy Shepherd (5-11) and Caitlin Elseser (6-3) have hit 175 and 158, respectively.
“All five of us hitters wouldn’t be anywhere without our setter,” Shepherd said. “We are blessed with one of the best setters, in my opinion, in Ohio. So without her, we wouldn’t be anywhere but mixing up and having five hitters and not having a go-to player every play I think truthfully helps us.”
This season, the Eagles average 13.9 kills per set and 49.7 percent of their spikes have been kills. Of the remaining Division III teams, Wheelersburg is next with averages of 13.1 kills and 45.3 percent, respectively. Independence is at 12.7 and 45, while CHCA is at 9.8 and 36.8.
“My philosophy all year is if we’re hitting strong at them, it’s really hard for them to hit strong at us,” Todd said. “… If a team does try to shut down one player, we have a lot more that are ready to swing. So that balance, that doesn’t matter if they try to slow one girl down; there’s going to be someone else who’s ready to swing hard.”
Meanwhile, CHCA has some firepower of its own, but of a different variety. The Eagles have recorded 370 aces this season as 21 percent of their serves have resulted in aces.
Junior Katelyn Grimes has fired 96 aces, while classmate Rylie Wichmann has chipped in 62. Senior Jessica Schaad (55), junior Erin McDaniel (50) and junior Katie Gansle (41) have also been key contributors at the service line.
“What stands out is their ace percentage is really, really high,” Todd said. “So we’ve been working really hard in practice on serve receive. Karis Willow can serve the ball so hard; it’s inconsistent right now, but that’s a great thing for us to practice is the girls serve receiving off of her.”
CHCA also has balance attacking as Gansle and junior Annie Lockett both have 200 kills. Wichmann and Schaad have added 166 and 113, respectively.
A trio of Eagles have around 200 assists as well in senior Ainsley Droege (250), McDaniel (204) and sophomore Carmen Solaria (195).
Defensively, Warrington leads L-B with 334 digs, with Granger (310) and senior Emma Otley (286) also playing key roles. Grimes leads CHCA with 317 digs.