It was becoming all too familiar.
The same court, the same venue, the same score. A horror story that seemed to repeat itself.
This year was different though. Kuemper’s seniors had remembered what happened two years ago, and also three seasons ago when they were freshmen. They remembered the sting of being favored to win, and being so close to the championship game only to have the season end with heartbreaking disappointment.
Not only had they remembered the heartbreak, they knew who they were playing. It was because of that familiarity the Knights were able to survive the fifth set and earn a 3-2 win over Red Oak in Thursday’s class 3A State semifinal match.
“Right at the beginning of the match I knew that it was going to be a tough day and a tough match,” said Keith Stickrod, the head coach of the Kuemper volleyball team. “We’re two equal teams that know each other and what we were going to do. Going five sets didn’t surprise me at all. I kind of expected it.”
At first the match didn’t seem that equal or that tough for Kuemper. They battled through four ties in the first set on their way to a 25-19 victory.
The second set featured Kuemper leading from start to finish.
“Especially in the second set, when we pulled so far ahead, it was kind of a relief,” said senior Mallory Badding. “But in the third set we got a little too comfortable, and Red Oak caught onto us.”
After winning the second 25-13, Kuemper was caught up in a battle with Red Oak. Three early lead changes eventually gave way to Red Oak as the Tigers grabbed a 25-23 win.
Kuemper and Red Oak battled through the fourth set. That set featured 10 ties, including Kuemper battling back to a 23-23 tie after trailing 23-21 moments earlier.
That was the last time that the Knights would score in the fourth though as Red Oak tied the match at two sets each with a 25-23 win. Memories may have started to flood to the Knight players. Bad ones from matches on court two in the previous years. Two years ago they fell to in five sets to Columbus Catholic. Three years ago court two hosted a four set defeat against Dike-New Hartford.
So here the Knights were again. On the brink of elimination, on a court they had historically struggled with.
Red Oak seemed to continue the streak of bad luck on court two, jumping out to a 5-3 lead.
Stickrod called an early timeout, but didn’t say much.
“The girls talked to themselves and the situation they were at,” Stickrod said about what went on in the timeout. “I thought they played fantastic volleyball and did what they needed to do.”
What they needed to do was what they did. They scored two straight points. After giving up three points to the Tigers the Knights had to dig deep.
They did with a four point run to tie the match at eight.
“We got down and we pushed,” said senior Kara Peter about tying the crucial fifth set at 8. “That shows how much drive we have and how much we wanted to get to where we are going.”
The match would be locked at nine, but then the Knights went on another run. This time they established an 11-10 lead.
For Stickrod that was the moment he knew his team had the advantage.
“Once we got it to the first point ahead in the fifth set I started to feel the set change there,” Stickrod said. “It was a small shift, but it was still a shift. Otherwise than that we knew it was going to be tough. It was just a crazy match.”
The Knights scored 11 of the final 12 points, eliminating Red Oak with a fifth set 15-10 victory. With it they erased some of the court two trip ups they had experienced in previous semifinal matches.
“It shows how hard we’ve worked this season,” Peter said about a team that lost nearly their entire starting squad form last year’s State championship team was able to march their way to a second-straight championship match. “We’ve all stepped up because everyone wants it as much as everyone else. There isn’t someone that might do it. We all go after it.”
Badding, who was a part of the team that lost in 2016 and 2017 reflected on bringing a mostly new squad to the championship game.
“That was so exciting for the team,” Badding said. “We have a bunch of new faces and just a few returners, so for us, and the younger girls to get that feeling of playing in the championship. That was huge.”
The Knights will try to defend their State championship at 2:30 p.m. this afternoon against Mount Vernon. The Mustangs finished the season 33-10, and beat West Liberty and Union on their way to the final.
Set one: Kuemper 25, Red Oak 19
Set two: Kuemper 25, Red Oak 13
Set three: Red Oak 25, Kuemper 23
Set four: Red Oak 25, Kuemper 23
Set five: Kuemper 15, Red Oak 10
Kills: Kara Peter 31, Anna Niehaus 23, Kenzie Schon 8, Bethany Schliesman 6, Madison Leonard 4, Sophie Badding 2.
Assists: Ashlyn Badding 30, Mariah Naberhaus 29, Mallory Badding 9, Kenzie Schon 1, Kara Peter 1, Sophie Badding 1.
Aces: Mallory Badding 2, Anna Niehaus 1, Kara Peter 1, Mariah Naberhaus 1.
Digs: Mallory Badding 24, Mariah Naberhaus 16, Kara Peter 13, Anna Niehaus 8, Kenya Prescott 6, Kenzie Schon 4, Sophie Badding 3, Bethany Schleisman 3, Ashlyn Badding 2, Madison Leonard 1.
Blocks: Sophie Badding 5, Anna Niehaus 1, Madison Leonard 1, Kara Peter 1