Derrick Webb, Staff Writer
WASHINGTON C.H. — You can’t replace experience.
Even though Unioto’s volleyball roster may show an abundance of youth, the Shermans have been undoubtedly battle-tested.
Aside from playing 14 games in the always-tough-to-win SVC, seven of Unioto’s 12 losses have come in four or five-set formats this fall.
And, to find the last time the Shermans won a five-set match, you’d have to travel back to Aug. 27, 2020. Since then, heading into Monday’s sectional semifinal at Miami Trace, they’d lost six straight.
But with their season on the line in a Division II sectional semifinal on Monday, Unioto flipped the script, snapping that streak with a five-set win over Miami Trace — a 22-25, 25-23, 26-24, 21-25, 15-7 final.
“We have a lot of experience with those types of games. It seems like every night, we’re going four or five sets, up and down that roller coaster,” Unioto coach Jackie Kellough said. “So in between, we try to regroup and reset. It’s one ball at a time in those moments. Breaking it down that way has really helped us break down those mental blocks that we go through.”
With just two seniors — and two good ones in Carissa Wheeler and Ava Eldridge — on the team, Kellough said she’s seen her younger players grow up in front of her eyes this year.
Contributing to Monday’s win were freshmen Jade Stewart, Kyra Stulley and Addison Platt as well as sophomores Ella Cutright, Avery Cox, Megan Miller, Emma Specht and Madelyn Wetzel.
Not included in that group is the team’s only junior, libero Sophie Coleman.
Needless to say, the future is bright.
“There is a lot of [youth] there but there’s also a lot of volleyball experience,” Kellough said. “That experience has come from the first match until now. And I think our teamwork has come together. It’s not just what I can do, but it’s what we can do as a team. We cheer each other on. It’s tough to go through these four and five set matches and get defeated. So I do think tonight’s win says a lot about our girls’ hearts and love for the game. That fifth set win speaks volumes.”
The first set was a tight one throughout.
Unioto (10-12) started the night with a 3-0 burst before Miami Trace took its first lead at 7-6. Carissa Wheeler put the Shermans back on top at 10-9 but, led by Laura Robinson and Sophia Parsons, the Panthers (13-7) seized a 14-13 edge.
Ella Cutright logged two straight kills to give her Shermnas a 16-14 lead but Miami Trace, which once trailed 22-19, battled back to tie that game at 22-22. From there, Parsons and Courtney Carter finished off a 6-0 run to help the Panthers steal a 25-22 match-opening win.
The nip and tuck style of play continued in the second.
Coleman and Stewart gave Unioto its first lead of the set at 8-7 before Wheeler helped extend it to 16-12. But the Panthers fought back, using kills from Carter, Parsons and Addyson Butts to force a 20-20 tie.
Unioto took a 23-21 lead before the Panthers forced the Shermans into a timeout with two straight points. But Cox and Wheeler came through in the clutch, tallying a kill and an ace, respectively, to put away a 25-23 win and tie the match at 1-1.
“We just continue to fight every single game, no matter the outcome or who we play,” Wheeler said. [Miami Trace] had some really big hits in the middle that I couldn’t get touches on, and I was kind of shocked by that. But we went out there, worked hard, and came out with the win.”
Carter led the Panthers to a 9-5 lead in the third before Robinson led the way to a 19-12 edge. Down, but not out, Unioto then mounted a 13-4 run to tie the game at 23-23.
From there, Wheeler took things into her own hands with a kill and an ace as Unioto stole a win of their own by a 26-24 final to take a 2-1 match lead.
“Our defense fights hard,” Kellough said. “We’ve talked about our defense keeping the ball going multiple times before. I feel like we always start with that when we gameplan. And we make adjustments well. We look at who we’re playing and our defense really responds well to what we need. That speaks to the girls and their ability to keep the ball alive.”
In the fourth, Miami Trace once again built a sizable lead, going ahead 18-9. But with Coleman at the service line, Unioto made a late push with a 10-1 run to force a 19-19 tie. This time, however, the Panthers wouldn’t be denied a win. Gracey Ferguson logged two straight aces and Robinson paved the way late to a 25-21 victory, forcing a fifth set.
In the fifth, Wheeler, Stewart and Cox teamed up for a 7-2 Unioto lead. That’s all the momentum the Shermans needed to pound down a 15-7 match-clinching victory.
Wheeler led the Shermans statistically with 11 kills alongside seven digs and five blocks while Stewart added 11 kills of her own. Cox had eight kills and 33 digs, Platt and Cutright each had six kills, Eldridge totaled 16 digs and 33 assists, and Coleman had ended the night with 22 digs.
While Miami Trace ends its season, Unioto advances to a sectional final. The Shermans will travel to meet with top-seeded Sheridan on Wednesday. The Generals enter with a 17-6 mark after a sweep of River Valley on Monday.
“We have to start big and work hard from the first point,” Kellough said. “[Sheridan] is a big team and they have height. So we’re going to have to play big at the net. We’ll start there. We’re going to work hard, get that ball up and just attack. If we can be aggressive, I feel like that’ll give us an edge that we need. We’re going to go in as an underdog and use that as motivation.”