Liberty-Benton’s Karis Willow (4) and Caitlin Elseser (11) block the spike from Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy’s Katie Gansle (2) during Thursday’s Division III state semifinal at Wright State University’s Nutter Center. L-B won in three sets to advance to Saturday’s Division III state final. (Photo by Matthias Leguire)

By MICHAEL BURWELL

Sports Editor

DAYTON — Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy faced a pretty tall task in Thursday’s Division III state volleyball semifinal against Liberty-Benton.

“That was definitely a strong rotation. We’re not used to seeing size of that many people on the other side of the net,” CHCA coach Lisa Schaad said of the towering L-B trio of Caitlin Elseser, Karis Willow and Izzy Granger.

That trio sparked a huge first set run, helped the Eagles take control in the second set and complete a comeback in the third as L-B topped CHCA 25-11, 25-22, 27-25 at Wright State University’s Nutter Center.

L-B (27-2), ranked No. 2 in the final coaches poll and playing in its first state semifinal, will take on No. 4 Independence at 11 a.m. Saturday in the Division III state final at the Nutter Center. Independence (24-4) swept previously-unbeaten and No. 3-ranked Wheelersburg 25-10, 25-12, 25-12 in Thursday’s other Division III semifinal.

CHCA, which was also playing in its first state tournament, finished its season at 21-7.

L-B had a little different way to win each set, but nevertheless, the Eagles completed their 25th straight-set win of the season.

Granger (6-feet) and Willow (6-3), two of the youngest players in L-B’s rotation, came up big.

Granger, who is just a sophomore, pounded 11 kills on 29 of 35 spiking, and added eight digs, two aces and two blocks. Willow, a freshman, also had 11 kills on 14 of 16 spiking, with three blocks.

Elseser (6-3), meanwhile, added eight kills on 13 of 14 spiking and had six blocks.

The trio helped L-B turn a 9-7 CHCA first-set lead into an Eagles’ rout.

With Alissa Rhodes serving and Willow, Elseser and Granger in the front row, L-B went on a 11-0 run to build a 23-10 lead. During the run, Willow and Granger both had two kills, Elseser had one and Rhodes served an ace.

Elseser and Willow combined for a block on Rylie Wichmann’s spike, and Elseser had another block. After Ava Kraft’s kill ended the run, Elseser pounded another kill and CHCA had a double hit as L-B finished with a flurry.

“That was unexpected, but they were blocking everything in that span of those points,” L-B coach Julie Todd said. “We were executing really, really well. Karis Willow could kind of do whatever she wanted in those points; anytime she touched the ball, it pretty much was a kill in that first set.

“I kind of joked with Schy Shepherd because when Caitlin’s in the front row, Schy’s not and I said ‘hey, you got to enjoy the show’ in that first set. But we knew they were going to fight back.”

That same rotation helped L-B build a lead in the second set. Granger smacked back-to-back kills to pull the Eagles to a 7-7 tie, and after her kill tied the match at 9-9, Rhodes stepped up to serve.

Granger’s block and kill extended L-B’s lead to 11-9, Willow hit another kill and CHCA had back-to-back double hit errors as the lead swelled to five.

L-B built a 23-16 lead but after a service error, CHCA’s Katelyn Grimes stepped to the service line.

Grimes, a junior libero who entered the match with 96 aces this season, fired back-to-back bullets to pull CHCA within 23-19. Another huge serve had L-B scrambling to save the ball, and it resulted in a CHCA point and a 23-20 deficit.

“That was a really, really hard serve,” Todd said. “We tried to mimic that in practice, but that is hard to mimic ,so at that point, you’re just kind of thinking ‘gosh it’d be nice if this serve goes into the net or 20 feet out of bounds.'”

Grimes’ next serve was into the net, but back-to-back kills from Wichmann and Katie Gansle cut the L-B lead to 24-22.

Elseser’s kill sealed the set, but Schaad felt her team had gained some momentum.

“We definitely settled down,” Schaad said. “I felt like they started believing in each other in that comeback.”

CHCA turned a 10-10 tie in the third set into an 18-12 lead after another Grimes ace. But L-B chipped away to tie it at 21-21 after Willow’s kill.

The two teams traded points as they were tied 23-23 after Elseser’s kill, 24-24 after Willow’s kill and 25-25 after a CHCA spiking error. Two more CHCA miscues resulted in the state final berth for L-B.

“We knew they were going to fight back,” Todd said. “We knew that they’ve been down before and have fought back, so credit to them for playing with such heart and never giving up. It makes our win that much more exciting and makes me even more proud of my team because we did rally back in that third set.”

“I feel like when you’re playing a significantly taller team, you would like for them to hit over top of you and to play defense, and I feel like that got started very late for us,” Schaad said. “Our defense was just a little shaky when we came out the first two sets and it didn’t catch us up fast enough.”

Rhodes dished out 34 assists, Emma Otley collected 14 digs and Hannah Warrington added 12 digs for L-B. Shepherd had six kills.

Grimes totaled 22 digs and three aces to lead CHCA. Annie Lockett had 12 kills on 22 of 24 spiking, while Gansle added 10 kills on 24 of 27 spiking.

Carmen Soloria and Ainsley Droege added 17 and 12 assists, respectively, for CHCA.

LIBERTY-BENTON (27-2)

ACES: Izzy Granger 2, Alissa Rhodes & Hannah Bodie 1. KILLS: Granger & Karis Willow 11, Caitlin Elseser 8, Schy Shepherd 6. SPIKING: Granger 29-35, Elseser 13-14, Willow 14-16, Hannah Warrington 12-15, Shepherd 9-11. ASSISTS: Rhodes 34. DIGS: Emma Otley 14, Warrington 12, Granger 8, Bodie 5. BLOCKS: Elseser 6, Willow 3, Granger 2.

CINCINNATI HILLS CHRISTIAN ACADEMY (21-7)

ACES: Katelyn Grimes 3, Jessica Schaad 1. KILLS: Annie Lockett 12, Katie Gansle 10, Rylie Wichmann 5. SPIKING: Gansle 24-27, Lockett 22-24, Wichmann 22-31. ASSISTS: Carmen Soloria 17, Ainsley Droege 12. DIGS: Grimes 22, Schaad 5, Wichmann 4. BLOCKS: Gansle, Lockett, Soloria & Ava Kraft 1.

Burwell, 419-427-8407

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