By Chip Cosby
Special to WCPO.com
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Henry Clay had been pointing all week towards a potential semifinal matchup with Notre Dame, and the Blue Devils came out in the first set and showed they meant business on Saturday.
That turned out to be just the wake-up call the Pandas needed. Notre Dame responded by taking the final three sets, 23-25, 25-19, 25-19, 25-6 to advance to Sunday's 2 p.m. state final.
Awaiting the Pandas will be defending state champ Assumption who outlasted top-ranked Mercy in a five-set thriller in the first semifinal.
But getting to Sunday was far from easy for the Pandas. Notre Dame established control early in both the second and third sets but had to fight off furious rallies from the gritty Blue Devils.
"We had to dig deep; it was a long day," said Notre Dame Coach Andrea Lanham. "It's getting close to midnight. Henry Clay played hard. They came at us in the first set, and battled all the way through."
The first set was a back-and-forth affair until Henry Clay finished by scoring the set's final five points, closing it out at 25-23 on a kill by Olivia Dixon.
That seemed to light a temporary fire in Notre Dame, as they jumped out to a 19-7 lead in the second set. But Henry Clay again showed its moxie, fighting back to within 21-18 on an ace by Kylie Colvin.
But Notre Dame tightened its belt and closed out the set at 25-19 on a Morgan Hentz kill.
That momentum carried into the first part of the third set as the Pandas established control at 13-6. Henry Clay had yet another rally in them, though, cutting the deficit to 21-19. But the Pandas once again closed strong, scoring the final four points of the set. Heidi Thelen sent a rocket over the right side of the net that Henry Clay couldn't handle, ending the set by the same identical 25-19 score as the second.
Notre Dame jumped out early again in the fourth set at 11-3, and this time the Devils didn't have a comeback in them. The Pandas clinched at 25-6 on a Madison Salkowski kill.
"It reached a point in that fourth set that we just said, 'Hey, let's finish this thing out," Lanham said. "The last thing we wanted was to go to a fifth set."
Hentz led the Pandas with 18 kills, while Heidi Thelen and Lauren Hollman added 11 apiece. Setter Elly Ogle delivered 49 assists.
The Pandas haven't won a state title since 1994. They've faced Assumption three times this season, winning in three sets on Sept. 7, before losing in two sets on Oct. 5 and three sets on Oct. 17.
"It's been a long time since we've brought it home," Lanham said. "We're hungry. And we're familiar with Assumption so we'll be ready to play."