By Dan Wright
UNION, Ky. – With a 27-25, 25-12, 25-16 win against Newport Central Catholic in the 9th Region semifinals Wednesday evening, the Ryle Raiders finally broke a string of eight semifinal losses in the last nine years.
Only one wouldn’t know it after a subdued reaction by the team after a NewCath hitting error clinched the match for them.
“I told the girls, you don’t understand,” said Ryle head coach Tasha Lovins, who guided the Raiders into the regional final for the first time ever. “It’s great to win, but you don’t understand what you’ve just done right now. Then they got a little excited.”
Said junior Ashley Bush: “We’re super excited about it. We are.”
Bush shared in the team lead with 10 kills in addition to having 10 assists and six aces,
Senior middle blocker Alexa Nichols matched Bush with 10 kills for Ryle (35-4) while freshman Hayley Bush, Ashley’s sister, had 11 assists. Sophomore Chase Barber and senior Sophia Dellecave served up four aces each as the Raiders finished the game with 16 aces in all.
NewCath (15-15) was led by junior middle blocker Keyaira Lankheit’s six kills, followed by five from freshman outside hitter Rachel McDonald. Senior middle blocker Nikki Kiernan added four blocks and senior setter Alyssa Maier had 13 assists.
The win by Ryle was just one more barrier toppled by a Raiders team that has won 35 games and broke the top 100 in the PrepVolleyball.com national rankings for the first time ever, according to Lovins.
“It just symbolizes the season,” she said. “We’ve broken so many records and now we just broke another one.”
The Raiders survived a first game in which they nearly let a 24-20 lead slip away, appeared to have won the game before a point was correctly reversed in NewCath’s favor, and finally won behind a pair of serves by Bush.
“In my opinion, that first set set the tone because that took our momentum into the second and third,” said Lovins. “We needed to get that first set.”
From there the Raiders relied on a defense that quickly sided out the Thoroughbreds on serves, never allowing NewCath to rally for more than two points in the second game.
“We work on it (siding out) in practice on it a lot,” said Bush. “That’s one of our main focuses at practice, so we did a really good job of that.”
In the third game Bush served Ryle to a 5-0 lead, and the Thoroughbreds managed just one point on their own serve until the score was 18-8.
“Our main focus is when we are on serve-receive, they get one serve,” said Lovins. “We want to immediately side out so we’re constantly not letting them serve too many times. That’s what happened the second and third games, being able to get side-out immediately.”
Lovins said that will continue to be a key if the Raiders hope to avenge a regular-season loss to Notre Dame in the finals, to be played Saturday at 6 p.m. at Ryle.
“Passing, serve-receive immediate siding out,” said Lovins, “and from the last time we played Notre Dame, it’s going to be reducing our errors.”
NOTRE DAME DOWNS ST. HENRY – Notre Dame (25-7), in search of its third straight 9th Region title, defeated a familiar foe in St. Henry (26-12), 26-24, 25-15, 25-13.
The Pandas and Crusaders have met in the regional tournament every year for over a decade, although this will be the first time since 2009 the two schools will not meet in the finals.
“With the blind draw, you never know,” said Notre Dame head coach Andrea Lanham. “We’ve met St. Henry before in the semis. Ultimately you’re going to have to play everyone, or whoever makes it that far.”
St. Henry held leads of 10-5 in the first set and 7-3 in the second, but the Pandas came back both times.
“We started out strong, we just didn’t hold our confidence and our composure,” said St. Henry head coach Maureen Kaiser.
Freshman outside hitter Paige Noble led the Crusaders with nine kills while sophomore middle hitter Janelle Tobler had seven.
“I’m disappointed we lost, but not disappointed in their effort,” Kaiser said.
Senior Elly Ogle led Notre Dame with 33 assists.
“She’s been the only setter, really since her freshman year,” Lanham said. “I know she wants to win badly and when she plays well, we tend to play well.”
Junior libero Micaela Stephenson had seven digs and senior middle blocker Heidi Thelen had 14 kills.
Just as important were four blocks by sophomore middle blocker Madison Salkowski.
“We weren’t closing in the beginning, and that was a big difference,” Lanham said.
Notre Dame will make its eighth straight appearance in the regional final against Ryle, Saturday at 6 p.m. on the Raiders home court. The Pandas beat the Raiders, 25-19, 25-15, 25-19, on Notre Dame’s home court, Sept. 12.
“Ryle’s a good team. They’ve been successful,” Lanham said. “We’ve just got to show up and stay focused.”
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