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Prophecy fulfilled: WAHS volleyball, girls soccer live up to high expectations entering 2018 seasons

Lydia Latimer and the Warren Area High School volleyball team square off with Central Valley in the first round of the state playoffs on Tuesday (Meadville H.S., 7:30 p.m.)

bhagberg@timesobserver.com

As the calendar flipped to August, we were contemplating what teams or individuals to put on the cover of our annual Times Observer Fall Sports Preview Edition.

With so many great teams and athletes in Warren County, this choice is always difficult (for the Winter and Spring as well). After great diliberation, we decided to feature a pair of ladies poised to lead their teams to heights they had never seen before.

We’re going to go out on a limb here and say we made the right call.

We chose to feature Mackenzie Bickling and Lydia Latimer for the cover story of the preview edition, and their senior seasons certainly lived up to the expectations set forth in August.

Mackenzie Bickling and the Warren Lady Dragons soccer team advanced to the D-10 title game this season, living up to high expectations.

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Individually, they were their usual, dominant selves. Bickling recorded her second straight 20-goal season that included a stretch of three hat tricks in three games. She now holds the Warren girls soccer team records for career goals (75) and assists (74 coming into the year-her assist total for this season was unavailable at press time).

Latimer blew past numerous career and single-season Warren volleyball team records. With at least one more set to play, she’s the single-season leader in kills (375), while hovering near a hitting percentage of 50 percent, and blocks (72). Latimer now holds the career mark for attacks (1,983), kills (934) and blocks (215).

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Of course, it was more important for both players coming into the season that they experience team success over individual achievement.

“I really want to take the team to the District 10 final and win it,” Bickling said in August.

Despite winning region titles in Bickling’s first three seasons, the Dragons had been unable to make it past the semifinals of the D-10 playoffs. They had been eliminated by Meadville the previous two seasons, so when Bickling centered a pass to MJ Fadale for a game-winning goal against the Bulldogs in September, it felt like perhaps this was the year Warren would put it all together.

“We got the monkey off our back,” coach Jeremy Bickling said following the game.

But the Dragons went on a 5-game losing streak following that win. They rebounded to win four straight near the end of the season before losing a heartbreaker in overtime at Meadville and dropping a match at Hickory to close out the season.

Still, the Dragons felt confident heading into the rubber match with the Bulldogs. Again, a District 10 Class 3A semifinal contest. Warren got stellar play from freshman Alyssa Andersen in net, and goals from Fadale and Sawyer Mohney had the Dragons out to a 2-0 lead.

The excitement was building as time wound down. From the game story:

“During the final 15 minutes, Meadville tried to spring their forwards for a breakaway chance. The Dragons defense held steady and cleared every attempt that came their way. The Dragons nearly turned a couple of those into a third goal late the game.

“With the ball in the Meadville end, the public address announcer began the 10 second countdown. Mackenzie Bickling stole a glance at the scoreboard and as the countdown reached zero, all the emotions from previous years came out and drove the senior to her knees with her head buried in her hands near midfield.

“‘It’s been four years,” she said. “We knew we could do it.'”

They had done it. The Dragons lost a hard-fought 2-1 match to Hickory in the D-10 championship, but Bickling had taken her team farther in the postseason than they had ever been. And they very nearly brought home district gold.

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For Latimer, the team goals were slightly loftier.

“We want to go undefeated in the region and go on to win the D-10 title for the first time ever,” she said back in August.

There might not be anything else to say other than, mission accomplished.

The Dragons rolled through the season undefeated, and losing only two sets along the way. Not only did they go undefeated in the region, but they also had a week in which they toppled the best 1A and 2A teams in District 10 (and two of the best in the state), Cochranton and Corry, respectively, in the same week.

It was hardly a one-woman show for Warren either. While Latimer put up her usual gaudy numbers, teammates Celia Chase and Ellie Lobdell also had more than 200 kills, and junior setter Lex Nyquist more than doubled her career assist total. Grace Wortman, when not playing solid defense in the back row, also contributed some key swings as did Jordan Sitler. Julia Lobdell, as libero, played great defense all season.

With such a strong team, it was no surprise the Dragons swept their way into the D-10 title game. Warren got to match point, and with the title on the line, turned to its most impactful player. From the story:

“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.”

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We don’t do much prognostication here. The weekly high school football picks are about as far as we go with our predictive abilities. Choosing these athletes and their teams is one predictive choice we’ll look back on fondly. Suffice to say, we had a good feeling about these teams and their ability to rise to the occasion.

“We knew this was the year,” Warren volleyball coach Mike Dolan said after the title game win.

Apparently, we weren’t the only ones.

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