By STEVE GOLDMAN
For the Star Beacon
With its five-game victory over Mentor in Division I district semifinal play, the Riverside volleyball team cleared a large hurdle, both in terms of the quality of the opponent and the mental obstacle the Cardinals present.
Second-seeded Riverside won the Euclid district in 2009 and 2010, but only one girl on the current squad – Maggie Julius – played regularly the last time it did so. Third-seeded Mentor not only came in this time as the defending district titlists, but won it in each of the 21 years from 1988-2008.
True, none of the girls are left from the Cardinals’ 2008 squad, but that’s quite a legacy. Plus, they did win it last year, and loaded their regular-season schedule with strong competition.
All of which serves to make Tuesday’s’ 25-21, 25-20, 21-35, 17-25, 15-11 triumph even more significant.
“Going into this match, we knew that this would be a big (match) — that Mentor was last year’s district (champion),” Brandy Thomas, who assisted under Stacy Sepelak the last two times Riverside won the district, and then took over as the head coach when Sepelak stepped down following the 2010 season, said. “They’ve been here a countless number of years — over and over and over again,. And the girls said, ‘We’re ready. We are ready to go at them.’ You try to prepare them as best you can.”
Going into the district championship match, which will take place on Thursday at 6 p.m., the seeds have held true in all 11 matches played during the tournament. The Beavers (21-4) hope to put an end to that pattern in that final match, when they face Premier Athletic Conference rival South.
The top-seeded Rebels beat Riverside both times the two squared off this season. In fact, they swept through the league without a loss.
Game 1 saw the Beavers take a 7-3 lead when Julius (8 digs, 5 kills) scored six of her 19 points. The Cardinals (11-13) closed within one point twice, but four more points by Julius pushed it to 22-15.
The second and third games were defensive battles, with both going well into the third rotation. The big exception came when Riverside charged ahead 12-8 in Game 2 when libero Ellie Hasebein (12 points, 27 digs) served for six points. The Beavers were able to maintain an advantage of at least two points the rest of that game, with Melissa Maczuzak (16 kills, 9 digs, 2 blocks) getting the clinching kill for a sideout.
The Beavers never led in Game 3. After rebounding from a four-point deficit to draw even at 14, Mentor responded with a sideout and two points by Megan Moroney to make it 17-14. The Cardinals were able to hold on from there.
After Riverside took a 6-2 lead in Game 4, Moroney served for five of her team-high 10 points for an 8-6 lead. The Beavers tied it at eight, but the Cardinals inched ahead and stayed ahead. Finally, with the score 18-17, they got a sideout on a missed serve. Then Bethany Pike, who had aced her first serve before misfiring on the next three, closed it out with six consecutive ace serves.
“The girls came out and made a statement in Games 1 and 2.” Thomas said. “I wish we could have done it again in Game 3, but I’m just proud that they were able to take it all the way to 5.”
That they did. In another defensive battle, Riverside let the Cardinals win only two points among their 11 serves. At the same time, the Beavers chipped away for a total of six points from five different servers. The only one to string two together, Hasebein, used an ace among those two points, and she provided an 8-5 lead. From there, it was 10-6 and 12-7 before Riverside got three sideouts to win, with the last one coming on a missed serve.
“The girls just stopped hitting in Games 3 and 4,” Thomas said. “And they started playing it safe, and Mentor was just going at it and taking it for every advantage that it had. So I told our girls. ‘You have to go at it. You can’t play scared. You have to play to win. You have to take it from Mentor. They’ve been here a countless number of times. They’re used to this. They’ve played against state-ranked teams; they are used to the competition. We started hitting, and that’s what got us back into the fifth game.
Outside hitter Rachel Stroski had 14 kills and four blocks, Maria Zito eight points and Ashley Parsons 40 assists and five digs for Riverside.
“We came in with confidence,” Parsons said. “I just feel like we all had our great moments tonight.
Libero Rachel Raimondo had eight points for Mentor.
“Riverside played some very good defense and their ball control is very good,” Mentor coach Erin Nutter said. “Against my strong hitters, that sometime isn’t the best matchup, when you have to continually aggressively go for the ball. And then you’re forced to make ‘em miss.
“And that’s kind of what you saw tonight, that they were very smart in what they did to attack us.”
“I told the girls in the locker room, ‘You know, I’d love to take credit for this.’ ” Thomas said. “ ‘But no matter what I tell you, you girls have to listen and you have to perform what I’m telling you to do, and you did.’”
“She tells us, ‘You can know everything about a team, but it’s us – we (have to) go out and perform,’ ” Julius, who returned the compliment in the direction of Thomas, said. “And I think we did.”
It’s such a huge accomplishment for these girls — to beat the district (champions) from last year,” Thomas said.
Riverside served at 91.3 percent as compared to 88.2 percent for Mentor.
Goldman is a freelance writer from South Euclid.
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