Volleyball sets tone in banner year for Lady Dragons

Times Observer file photo Warren volleyball players celebrate after defeating Conneaut to win the program’s first District 10 title in November 2018. The team made a run to the state title game and set the tone for what was an incredible year for WAHS athletic programs.

The 2018-19 school year was a historic one for high school athletics in Warren County.

As such, we decided to take a look back at the athletes and teams that made this season so special.

This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive overview of each team, but rather a look back at some of the most memorable moments.

For the Warren Dragons in particular, this was perhaps the best year for sports in the history of the school. If not, it’s certainly on a very short list, with three District 10 team titles, a state finalist volleyball team, and multiple individual D-10 champs.

With that said, we’ve broken it down into a two-part feature, one each for the girls and boys.

Here, we take a look at the female teams and athletes that made this year one for the history books at WAHS.

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Nearly every Lady Dragons squad seemed poised to take the next step as the year began, but perhaps none moreso than the WAHS volleyball team.

After a thrilling comeback win in the District 10 semifinals, the Dragons bowed out in the D-10 championship game in 2017. From the moment the final whistle blew in that match, those returning players were determined to do whatever was necessary to not only get back to the title game, but bring home that elusive championship.

That determination, coupled with a rigorous and demanding offseason conditioning program, allowed the Dragons to roll through the early part of their schedule. They put the entire state on notice that they were not a team to take lightly when they swept the top ranked 1A and 2A teams in the state, in a span of a single week. With that momentum, Warren completed an undefeated regular season and were the odds-on favorites heading into the D-10 playoffs.

They made quick work of their quarterfinal and semifinal opponents and went into the title match against Conneaut poised to bring home the program’s first district championship.

Warren went up 2-0, but dropped the third set. They came out in the fourth looking more like the team that had steamrolled through the regular season. With the Dragons at match point, the Eagles served. Warren got the first chance to put the match away, but Conneaut came up with a dig then sent the ball back to the Dragons. All-state setter Lex Nyquist took the pass and put a ball right in the wheelhouse of all-state middle Lydia Latimer. Latimer put a big swing on the ball and as it hit the floor, the celebration was on.

With the D-10 title in hand, Warren went looking for more in the state tournament. The Dragons dispatched the WPIAL’s Central Valley and Thomas Jefferson to set up a semifinal showdown with WPIAL champion Knoch in the state semifinals. The Knights came into the match riding a 48-game winning streak and as the defending state champions. A 3-1 win sent the defending champs home and the Dragons into the state championship.

Warren fell to West York in the state title game, but took the entire county along on an incredible ride to that game. Not only did the Dragons finish with a 21-1 record, but program career and single-season records seemed to fall as often as their opponents did. Warren’s efforts were rewarded with six region all-stars, four all-District 10 nods and a trio of all-state players.

They weren’t the only fall team to exercise a playoff demon either. The girls soccer team had been eliminated in the playoffs the previous two seasons by Meadville. When the two teams first met at War Memorial Field in September, the Lady Dragons got a late game-winning goal from MJ Fadale to push their winning streak to five. Rather than give them a boost, the win seemed to do the opposite as Warren followed with a 5-game losing streak. The Dragons then won four straight before losing at Meadville and Hickory to close the regular season.

Having split the regular season meetings with the Lady Bulldogs, the Lady Dragons entered the rubber match in the D-10 playoffs looking for a chance to get to the championship game. Fadale broke a scoreless tie with just under 15 minutes left in the first half, and freshman keeper Alyssa Anderson made key saves late in the half to preserve the lead. Sawyer Mohney, who also had a stellar year as the placekicker for the football team, put the icing on the cake with a shot into the corner of the net with just over 15 minutes to play.

That win set up a date with D-10 powerhouse Hickory in the championship game. The Hornets came in with a record of 18-1 and had outscored their opponents 113-5 on the year. Undaunted, Warren stifled Hickory for 56 minutes, then stunned the crowd at a rainy Franklin High School when sophomores Kyleigh Wilson and Kyra Wotorson connected on a perfect pass play to put the Dragons ahead 1-0. The Hornets answered the bell and tied the game just a few minutes later. Hickory took advantage of a controversial penalty call to get a 2-1 lead they wouldn’t relinquish and end a remarkable season. Though Warren says goodbye to a talented senior class that includes the programs all-time leading scorer, Mackenzie Bickling, the Dragons have a group of fantastic underclassmen that should have them right back in the thick of the D-10 title race.

Speaking of races, while those teams were making playoff runs, there was another group of ladies doing some running of their own. Warren cross country juniors Bri Ristau and Naomi Hahn capped their strong seasons with a trip to the state meet in Hershey.

The third time was the charm for Hahn this season. During the regular season, she took home top-5 finishes at the McDowell and Sharpsville Invitationals and led the Dragons in tri-meet action. Hahn brought home a first-place time from the Cuba Invitational, then finished fourth at the District 10 meet and qualified for her third straight PIAA state meet. She saved her best for last, as she made a late charge to earn a top-25 finish (21) and a state medal. After the season, Hahn was named a first-team region all-star.

Ristau was one of Warren’s top finishers in virtually every tri-meet throughout the season. She began the year with a 31st place finish at McDowell and moved up to 26th at Sharpsville. Ristau finished fourth at Cuba in a final tune-up for the District 10 meet, where she took 11th and qualified for the PIAA state meet for the second time in her career.

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Whatever it takes.

That’s what the Lady Dragons basketball team was willing to do to bring home a second D-10 title this season. The question coming into the year was where Warren would get secondary scoring to pair with senior standout Margo Loutzenhiser.

A pair of freshmen wasted little time answering that question. Riley Childress and Emma Ruhlman burst on to the scene at Warren’s Tip-Off Tournament. The pair scored 20 and 28 points, respectively, in wins over Oil City and Panama and Warren was off and running. The Dragons started the season with an 11-game winning streak before running into perennial power Villa Maria in early January. The Victors grabbed a 35-point win and held Loutzenhiser scoreless for the first time since her freshman season.

But that was just a bump in the road. Warren rebounded to win its next five games, setting up a showdown with the Victors at home. This time, the Dragons were up to the task. Not only did Loutzenhiser score a game-high 23 points, her free throws early in the fourth quarter started a 10-0 run that led to a 50-37 win. Those two throws also put her alone atop the Lady Dragons all-time scoring leaderboard.

Warren finished the year with a 19-3 record and went into the D-10 playoffs as one of the favorites to win it all. They rolled to wins over Meadville and General McLane to set up a championship game showdown with Slippery Rock. The Lady Dragons led wire-to-wire and outscored the Rockets 18-8 in the fourth quarter to seal the championship win.

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The spring season had its share of standouts as well.

Latimer took center stage again with her fourth D-10 high jump title. She also brought home district gold in the 200. Latimer competed in both events at the PIAA State Track and Field Meet and the senior, who will play volleyball for Division I Cleveland State next season, leaves WAHS as one of the most decorated athletes, male or female, in school history.

The 4×800 relay team of Kayla Giambrone, Ristau, Hahn and Katie Beyer also competed at states after shaving 20 seconds off their season best to stun top-seeded McDowell to win district gold. That group in particular hadn’t run together but a few times, but they put it all together at the perfect time.

The Lady Dragons were dominant on the diamond again as well this season.

Warren dropped its season-opener to McDowell, then didn’t lose again in the regular season. And it wasn’t just that they won, but how they won that was impressive. The Dragons won 16 straight regular season games, and only three of those wins were by three runs or less. That winning streak nearly came to an end in the D-10 quarterfinals when the Dragons squared off with Hickory.

A RBI double from Julia Lobdell and a solo homerun from Ellie Lobdell had the Dragons up 2-0 through 3 1/2 innings. Hickory got a run in the bottom of the fourth, but a crucial error in the sixth allowed a pair of runners to score to put Warren up 4-1. The Hornets didn’t go quietly. They got a run in in the bottom of the seventh and had the tying run on base but the Dragons clamped down defensively and advanced to the semifinals where they rolled past Harbor Creek.

Unfortunately, Warren ran into Grove City pitcher Lizzie Malczak, who allowed a total of just 12 baserunners in four playoff games, in the title game and dropped a 1-0 decision.

The Lady Dragons were so dominant during the season that they had seven players earn first-team all-region nods, with another making the second team. Senior pitcher Ellie Lobdell also earned Region Pitcher and Player of the Year for the second straight season.