By Robb Hemmelgarn
NEW KNOXVILLE -- Selecting a storyline for Saturday's championship contest at the New Knoxville Invitational was about as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.
In one corner, you had the New Knoxville Rangers, the home team who had the majority of the crowd behind them. Through the first half of the season, they had silently built up a 9-1 overall record, with their only loss being a five-game match against the Versailles Tigers.
In the other corner, were the St. Henry Redskins, the defending Division V state champions and a team most expected to be playing for the invitational title.
The final match pitted the two winningest teams in the 27-year history of the event, St. Henry with 16 trophies and the Rangers with five. Add in the fact that New Knox-ville hadn't beaten the Redskins on the volleyball court in 13 years, and this game had all of the makings of something special.
When the dust settled and the final points of the game were collected, the noise from the frenzied crowd inside New Knoxville High School was deafening, as the host Rangers not only beat the Redskins in three games, but they controlled their opponent for the majority of the affair. "This win is a huge confidence-builder for our girls," said New Knoxville head coach Jenny Fledderjohann. "St. Henry is an outstanding team, and we know that they will now come in here fired up on Thursday when we play again, but winning today is great for the girls and for the program."
The Redskins, who advanced to the finals with an opening-round win over Milton Union and a semifinal victory in two games over New Bremen, jumped out to the early lead in game one, only to have the Rangers storm back and knot things up at 12 points.
A block by junior Nicole Wright fell untouched on the St. Henry side to give the Rangers the 13-12 lead. St. Henry was in the rear-view mirror the rest of the way. The home team built its advantage to as many as five points, but St. Henry kept biting at their heels, knotting things up at 24 and 25 points.
A kill by junior Alycia Niemeyer gave her team a 26-25 lead and a few seconds later, Wright found an opening in the St. Henry defense and laid one down for the winning point, 27-25.
Game two followed much of the same pattern, as Niemeyer and Wright exchanged pounding shots back and forth with St. Henry's Kayla Lefeld and Bethany Puthoff. The Redskins tied the game at five points, but the Rangers began to pull away and led by as many as four points, but St. Henry quickly regrouped and regained the lead at 14-13.
New Knoxville managed to keep it close for a few minutes, but the Redskins finally jumped ahead for good. Sandy Beyke took over the serve with her team ahead 19-16, and the senior knocked over five straight points and St. Henry eventually went on to win by the 25-18 final.
"I told the girls on the bench before that third game, that we had to keep attacking them and we had to play better defense," commented Fledderjohann. "I pointed out that we had to keep hitting hard, keep the ball in play, and try to make them play defense."
What looked to be a momentum-building spurt by the visitors for game three, proved to be only a facade, as the Rangers leaped out to the 6-0 advantage in the deciding game.
Behind the strong serving of Niemeyer, the Ranger offense continued to exploit weaknesses in the St. Henry defense, making many of their points look easy. A lift against the Rangers finally stopped the bleeding for St. Henry, but Kayla Lefeld's signature jump serve was well-received, and a tip by Wright found another opening in the Redskin defense to give the home team a 7-1 lead.
The Rangers, who defeated Indian Lake and Fort Loramie in two games apiece to advance to the finals, extended their lead to eight points at 11-3 and 14-6, The deficit was just too much for St. Henry to overcome as a slam by Niemeyer ricocheted off of St. Henry's front row, giving the Ran-gers the 15-7 victory.
"Lack of a team effort," Schwieterman spelled out after her team's third loss of the season. "Lack of team effort was what it boiled down to this afternoon. In the first and third games our team played as individuals and nobody wanted to play as a team. The girls know that in the MAC they better come out ready to play every time they step on the floor. They didn't come ready to play in the final game, and New Knoxville stepped up and took care of us. We had a lot of errors today, especially on defense, and it gave New Knoxville a lot of opportunities that they were able to take advantage of."
The Redskins (12-3) will try to gain revenge on the Rangers (10-1) Thursday night at the Ranch in what could certainly turn out to be a pivotal Midwest Athletic Conference battle.
Other Grand Lake area teams participating in the day's festivities included the New Bremen Cardinals, Parkway Panthers, and Coldwater Cavaliers. The Cardinals opened the day with a victory over the Coldwater Cavaliers before falling to St. Henry in the next round. They then fell to the Fort Loramie Redskins in two games in the third-place game.
Parkway lost to Fort Loramie in the opening round before defeating Indian Lake and Coldwater for fourth place overall. Coldwater's lone victory in the invitational came against the Milton-Union Bulldogs in their second match of the day.