EATON TWP. — With Elyria leading state-ranked Amherst two games to one and 24-16 in Game 4, Pioneers fans stood in unison in anticipation of their team’s match-sealing point in Thursday’s Division I district volleyball final at Midview.
It never came.
Incredibly, Amherst reeled off 10 straight points to force a fifth game, then won the match with a thrilling 18-16 victory to advance to Wednesday’s regional semifinal at Brecksville-Broadview Heights. The sixth-ranked Comets (20-3) will play Strongsville at 7:30 p.m. Elyria finishes at 14-11.
“That is by far the best match of volleyball that I have coached in my 23 years,” Amherst coach Laurie Cogan said. “I’ve been affiliated with a lot of good ones but that was just spectacular.”
It’s hard to imagine a better final staged by two of the area’s longtime powers. Both teams played great defense. Both teams had great swings and blocks at the net. Both teams made runs at key points.
Elyria won the first and third games, 25-18, 25-20. Amherst took the second, 25-14.
It was Amherst’s sixth district title since 1991 but first since 2010 when it won back-to-back championships. Elyria, which has won 14 district titles since 1990, was denied its first title since 2006.
When Elyria senior Danya Corlew’s shot was blocked out of bounds by the Comets, the Pioneers had their 24th point to lead by eight in the fourth game.
One mistake, one error, one missed set, one missed play and the game and the match was over.
“I’ve never seen a team do that,” said Elyria coach Jodie Johnson, an eyelash away from winning her first district in seven years as Elyria’s coach. “Give Amherst 100 percent credit for taking that fourth set from us. That’s exactly what they did. They completely bear down and they took that daggone fourth set from us. We were one point away and it just seemed like we went into a panic.”
“We had to be flawless,” Cogan said. “I’ve got a freshman server (Madison Cruzado) back there that had already missed one. She’s a good server, but that’s a lot of pressure.”
Amherst won the sideout on a Mallory Sliman kill and Cruzado, who played terrific defense (28 digs), took the ball at the service line.
“We knew we could do it,” said Sliman, a senior. “We knew if we had energy we could do it and the momentum just carried over.”
Sliman got another kill and Elyria hit one out of bounds. Sliman and sophomore Alayna Johnston combined on a block and the Pioneers called time at 24-20.
Sliman got another kill and the Pioneers had a hitting error before Johnston and Sliman each scored again to close it to 24-23. Sliman tied it when her kill was tipped out of bounds by Elyria. The Pioneers committed two more hitting errors and the Comets had the win.
To Elyria’s credit, it could have folded right there, but the Pioneers dug in and fought hard in the fifth game before the Comets broke a 16-all tie with two more Sliman kills.
“We didn’t get a big lead in the fifth game but it didn’t matter,” Sliman said. “We just knew we could win after that fourth game.”
Sliman led Amherst with 21 kills, while junior Brooke Wallace had 13 kills and six block kills. Sophomore Ashley Makruski had nine kills and senior setter Riley Schenk had 48 assists and 11 digs.
“Both teams showed up to play,” Cogan said. “Neither team wanted to go home. Both had their hearts set on making it to the regional tournament. How we overcame that fourth-set deficit, I’ll have to think about that for days. I’m not sure how we pulled that off.”
Corlew and junior Tyra Darden had 22 kills and 18 digs each for Elyria. Senior Alexis Middlebrooks had 13 kills, five solo blocks and five block assists.
Junior Mariah Johnson had four solo blocks and one assist. Defensively, senior Haley Paonessa had 21 digs, while junior setter Emily Gonzalez finished with 54 assists.
“My girls have worked hard all year,” Johnson said. “One of the things I harped on them early is that I wanted them to develop into complete volleyball players not just athletes playing volleyball.
“This match proved to me and I hope it proved to a lot of other people, we’ve got some solid volleyball players. We’re a threat to be reckoned with but you have to take it one step at a time and we couldn’t pull it out.”
Contact Tim Gebhardt at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.