By Dan Wright
UNION, Ky. -- Throughout Notre Dame’s 25-15, 25-23, 25-20 defeat of Ryle in the 9th Region championship game Saturday evening in Union, the hashtag “#pts” could be found everywhere.
It was on shirts the players wore in warm-ups, placards they were holding afterward, signs the fans brought with them, and, of course, tweets that followed the match.
"It’s ‘Pandas take state.’ “ said senior setter Elly Ogle, the tournament’s most valuable player. “It’s just motivation for us.”
Ogle, an LSU recruit, had 30 assists and four kills and was a key reason the Pandas took another step towards a potential state title by winning the regional title for the third straight year and sixth time in the last seven years.
“Elly’s such a crucial part of our team,” said Notre Dame head coach Andrea Lanham. “Really the setter is on any team, but being a 5-1 setter (the only setter on the court), a lot of our success is dependent on her play. And that’s a lot of pressure as a setter. She worked hard and battled through.”
For only the second time in Notre Dame’s current run, however, its regional final opponent was someone other than St. Henry.
Ryle, in the midst of a record-breaking season that included 35 wins, was making its first appearance in a regional final.
“I think all three of us (Notre Dame, Ryle and St. Henry) are in the top 10 in the state, and yet only of us get to go,” Ryle head coach Tasha Lovins said. “It’s kind of sad to see that happen.”
The Raiders looked like a team in its first regional final early, committing eight hitting errors and three violations in falling in the first game, 25-15.
“I think they were a little nervous,” Lovins said. “It’s their first time being here. They played great and they came out of it.”
The Raiders rebounded and appeared poised to be only the second 9th Region team to take a game from Notre Dame this season, serving, up 23-18, in the second game.
Ogle set up senior middle blocker Lauren Hollman for a kill to side out the Raiders, and junior Micaela Stephenson served up six straight points to swing the game in Notre Dame’s favor.
“Micaela always hits her zone, for the most part, and she’s been serving a lot more aggressive,” said Lanham. “She’s a very focused player, so it was great that she was back there at that time to really stay consistent and hit the zone where we wanted her to hit.”
“If we could have taken that game where we had the lead, it could have been a whole different situation,” said Lovins. “We just broke down and couldn’t get the job done.”
Ryle again built a lead in the third game, 16-12, but Stephenson served up three more points, including one of five aces by the Pandas, to tie the score at 16.
A net violation briefly gave Ryle the lead again at 17-16, but Kylie Colvin served up one of her two aces in the match during a four-point Notre Dame run, and Ogle set up sophomore Morgan Hentz for a kill to close out the final game, 25-20.
Hentz, who led Notre Dame with 15 kills, was named to the all-tournament team along with Stephenson and senior middle blocker Heidi Thelen, who had seven kills and was in on five blocks.
Sisters Ashley and Hayley Bush and senior middle blocker Alexa Nichols made the all-tournament team for Ryle. Ashley Bush, a junior, had five kills and eight digs while Hayley Bush, a freshman, and Nichols both had six kills. The Bush sisters combined for 14 assists as Ryle played its second game without senior Harper Hempel, who led the team in assists with 404 during the season.
Hempel injured her foot at the end of practice on Tuesday.
“She’s such a leader on the court and she always does a such a great job,” Lovins said of Hempel. “We were hoping we would make it to state and she would be ready to go again at state.”
The Pandas take their next step in their quest to take the state title on Friday, facing 10th Region champion Campbell County at 8 p.m. at Valley High School in Louisville in the first round of the state tournament.
Notre Dame beat the Camels, 25-18, 18-25, 25-15, 25-19 on Oct. 10.
“We played them during the season,” said Lanham. “It’s the end of the year, anything can happen. We’ve got to be ready and we’ve got to get though the next step.”
Jenna Fessler (Beechwood), Kaity Smith (Cooper), Bailie Parker (Dixie Heights), Kaitlin Hall (Highlands), Madison Volk (NewCath), Nikki Kiernan (NewCath), Janelle Tobler (St. Henry), Karlee Schreiber (St. Henry), Ashley Bush (Ryle), Alexa Nichols (Ryle), Hayley Bush (Ryle), Morgan Hentz (Notre Dame), Micaela Stephenson (Notre Dame), Heidi Thelen (Notre Dame). MVP- Elly Ogle (Notre Dame).