Legendary: Lady Dragons make history with first District 10 title
MEADVILLE, Pa. – One ‘perfect’ set led to a mighty swing.
And as the ball hit the floor of the Meadville High School gymnasium, a year’s worth of pent up emotion, driven by a desire to achieve greatness and an unmatched will to win, boiled over to a joyful release.
They had done it.
For the first time in program history the Warren volleyball team exited the District 10 Class 3A playoffs as champions with a 3-1 win over Conneaut Saturday.
“It’s indescribable,” junior Grace Wortman said. “This is the best feeling ever.”
“I knew we could do it,” senior Kadee Merenick added. “There was never a doubt.”
“I couldn’t be happier for them,” Warren coach Mike Dolan said. “After that game last year, it’s been a whole year that this has been in the back of their minds. And lately, in the front of their minds.”
As has been regailed several times during the last 10 days, the Dragons (18-0) were in the title game a year ago. They fell to General McLane, but went back to work almost immediately to put themselves in a position to win it.
“We’ve been working so hard for this,” Wortman said.
To walk away from the “House of Thrills,” as the Meadville gym is nicknamed, with the gold, Warren would have to work harder than it had almost all season.
Conneaut (13-4) entered on a roll, having swept their way to the title game with wins over Villa Maria and Harbor Creek.
The Eagles showed right from the start that they wouldn’t be intimidated by the unbeaten Dragons.
Warren got out to a 3-1 lead to start the first, but a big kill from Cassidy Snider tied the set at 3-3. A 4-0 run gave the Eagles a 6-3 advantage. A Taylor Kersnick ace put Conneaut up 8-4 as the Eagles began building momentum. Conneaut forced Warren to take a timeout with the Eagles ahead 11-5.
The Dragons put some points together, but Conneaut was winning the battle at the net and started to pull away on the scoreboard with a 15-9 advantage. An Ellie Lobdell kill started a 4-0 run for Warren to make it 16-13. Snider, who was seemingly putting the ball wherever she wanted early in the match, got a kill to end the run and another Kersnick ace had the Eagles within striking distance of a first set win with a 20-14 lead.
The Dragons answered with a 6-0 run to tie it, and a Lydia Latimer kill gave Warren the lead at 21-20. Conneaut came back to tie it at 23-23. On the next point, Wortman went for a dig and the ball ricocheted off her face. Somehow the Dragons kept the ball alive and Jordan Sitler put down a kill to get to set point. Warren closed out the set with a 25-23 win.
“How many times (this season) did we come back and win those close games? That 30-28 win against Cochranton, for example,” Dolan said. “Because of that, they have that mentality that they’re never out of a game. They just take it one point at a time.”
That one point at a time mentality would be tested again in the second. Warren jumped out to a 7-2 lead, but a close call net violation against Latimer swung the momentum to the Eagles, who answered with a 7-1 run to take a 9-8 lead. Conneaut began methodically pulling away as the Dragons had trouble getting their offense in sync. Warren took a timeout trailing 15-11, but still couldn’t get back to even with the Eagles.
A long volley, featuring several acrobatic saves by both teams, ended with the Eagles getting the point and a Skye Karastury ace put Conneaut up 18-14. Undaunted, the Dragons rallied to tie the set at 18-18. Another Sitler kill gave Warren the lead at 19-18. The Eagles tied it at 21, but Sitler again came up with a big kill give Warren the lead. Conneaut tried to slow the momentum with a timeout, but Warren took its second straight 25-23 win to go up 2-0 in the match.
“We expected a fight for every point,” Wortman said.
The teams battled to a 4-4 tie early in the third. Conneaut then went up 6-4, only for Warren to tie at 6. This trend, Eagles up two and Dragons tie, continued to an 8-all tie. The Eagles had a 4-0 run to take a 12-8 lead. Warren grabbed points sporadically, but couldn’t get a sustained run and Conneaut started to pull away. Down 17-10, the Dragons scored a pair, but Snider had a big kill to stop the momentum. With the Eagles leading 21-12, Warren went on a 5-0 run to pull within four. Conneaut was able to hold Warren off, however, to take a 25-18 win and extend the match to a fourth set.
A change seemed to come over the Dragons in the fourth. What appeared to be an unusually tight squad through the first three sets, suddenly became the team at ease they had been all season.
The change showed on the scoreboard as well.
Warren raced out to a 7-2 lead to force a Conneaut timeout. The break didn’t matter as the Dragons pushed the lead to 11-3. With Warren up 13-3, the teams engaged in another long rally. Snider had three chances to put down a kill for the Eagles, but Julia Lobdell was there all three times for the dig and Latimer finished the volley with a strong kill of her own to put Warren ahead 14-3. Another Latimer kill made it 15-5.
“We wanted to finish strong,” Wortman said. “We changed the rotation in the fourth and it changed the speed of the game. We just kept building momentum.”
That momentum continued as Latimer served an ace to make it 19-5. Snider came up with a kill for the Eagles to cut the lead to 20-8, but Conneaut couldn’t string any points together. Celia Chase put down a kill to make it 21-9, then Sitler followed with a kill for a 22-10 advantage. Snider again tried to swing the momentum to her side with a kill, but a service error gave Warren the serve with a 23-11 lead. The Dragons got to match point at 24-12, but the Eagles, fighting to the very end, got a side out and the serve.
Julia Lobdell received the serve and passed to setter Lex Nyquist. As much as the Dragons have been a strong all-around team this season, there was absolutely no doubt who Nyquist was setting for this point. The Warren fans, and there were plenty again as there has been all season, rose to their feet as Nyquist lifted the ball to her all-state middle hitter.
“It was a perfect set,'” Latimer said. “I thought, ‘This is it. I’m going to destroy the ball.'”
And destroy it she did. Latimer put 364 days – the number of days since the 2017 title game-worth of energy, drive and desire into the swing. For all the fight the Eagles put up, and this match was a fight, no doubt about it, they had no chance on this ball.
“Words can’t describe (how I feel),” Latimer said. “It’s amazing.”
“As soon as you see Lydia take that approach and Lex put the ball right in her wheelhouse,” Dolan said. “Yeah, I think everybody enjoyed that.
“I mean, to have the whole year to think about a game like this and all the pressure, it weighs on you,” he continued. “But this is such a good team. To have two comebacks like that in the first two games. Wow. And then to get it done in the last game. They really showed who they are.”
The Eagles, boasting a roster with only two seniors, showed how tough they are as well. Snider finished with a game-high 21 kills. She also had five aces. Kersnick finished with six kills, four aces and three blocks. Kat Ledford had 42 digs and three aces and Sarah Orr added 14 digs and 38 assists.
Latimer had 19 kills, 11 digs and eight blocks to lead the Dragons. Chase had 10 kills, 12 digs and a pair of blocks while Sitler finished with a career-high 10 kills and three blocks.
“Jordan has really come a long way with her confidence,” Dolan said. “Last year, there was some hesitation. She just turns and gets that arm through so fast. She was key.”
Ellie Lobdell had nine kills, three blocks and 19 digs. Julia Lobdell added 24 digs, while Nyquist had three blocks, 10 digs and 46 assists and Wortman added four kills, nine digs and two aces-on 22 serves.
“Grace had some clutch swings,” Dolan said. “The serving run she went on (in the first) . . .”
Now, for the first time, Warren sets its sights on the state tournament. The Dragons will take on Central Valley (14-4), the third seed out of the WPIAL, Tuesday back at Meadville at 7:30 p.m., or 30 minutes after the conclusion of the Class 1A opener between Cochranton and Ridgway, which begins at 6 p.m..
And even though they’ve reached the goal of winning a district championship, that doesn’t mean the Dragons are going to sit back and just be happy to be in the state playoffs. They’re looking to make a run.
“McLane beat the 7-3 team in the first round last year. We played Central Valley this summer and beat them,” Dolan said. “Having this game right now was good for us. We’re going in feeling like we can win.”
Wortman had an even simpler approach.
“We’re not done.”