Saturday, January 28, 2023

Independence advances to state championship match

DAYTON—Independence learned a lot from its first trip to the state Final Four last winter.

The Blue Devils used that experience to jump on Defiance Tinora early and never let up in earning a 3-0 sweep over the Rams in a Division III state semifinal at Nutter Arena on Thursday.

“The emotions are off the chart,” Independence coach Tony Messina said. “It’s what we’ve been working hard for since Aug. 1. Tough, tough opponent today. Tinora was 28-0 and didn’t lose many sets but the girls played hard.”

Tinora entered the match ranked No. 4 in the state of Ohio and an unblemished record. The Rams had won 81 of 83 sets played prior to dropping three straight to the Blue Devils, 25-15, 25-22, 25-18.

“Coming to states is wonderful but it’s different,” Messina said. “The mental mindset has to be there and they were ready. The girls did a great job.”

Independence scored the first seven points of the match and led by as many as 11 points before closing out the first set.

A second straight trip to the state Final Four allowed the Blue Devils to avoid the early match jitters they suffered through in last year’s 3-0 loss to Coldwater.

“I think that last year we weren’t really 100-percent all ready for that huge arena out there and this year, coming in, I think we handled ourselves way better than last year,” junior libero Maddy Bilinovic said. “We came out there; we knew what we had to do. We kept pressure on them and we just helped each other.”

Tinora suffered a different fate in its first trip to the Final Four.

“For sure it’s the facility itself that is intimidating,” Tinora coach Bretta Hagerty said. “We play in a little cocoon, and we like our cocoon, but it is hard to step into this type of arena. There’s no depth perception. It’s completely different. So I don’t think it was so much nerves as it was trying to acclimate to the large arena.”

The Rams regrouped and competed in the final two sets but the Blue Devils had far too much depth and the experience factor played a role as well.

“Having last year in the back of our minds, it was there and it happened, but I know we all wanted to come in and take care of it this year,” senior setter Katie May said. “I think having that huge start gave us a bunch of confidence. It also kind of set the other team back a little bit too and they got caught off guard too.”

After taking a 2-0 lead, Independence reflected on last week’s 3-1 win over Waynedale in the Barberton regional championship for the inspiration to complete the sweep.

Waynedale rallied back from a 14-4 deficit to force a fourth set. The Blue Devils weren’t willing to let that happen again.

“During the season, you take some tests to get to the final exam here,” Messina said. “We played a tough Waynedale team last week in the regional final. We went up 2-0 like we did today and Waynedale took it to us in set three. I think that lesson the week before here, we didn’t talk about it a lot but we reminded the players of that, the coaches did after set two today. The last 25 is the hardest to get when you get this far down the road. I think they responded to that real well. I think the Waynedale test last week helped us today a little bit.”

Having a wealth of attacking options also helped.

Lexi Prokopius and Grace Smotek both finished with 10 kills. Hannah Wilson contributed with seven, Kallie Screptock recorded five kills and Katie Taliaferro finished with four. Bilinovic added three, Callie Prokopius hammered home two kills and May had one.

The Blue Devils recorded a total of 42 kills while Tinora was limited to just 24.

Independence will play Versailles for the Division III state championship on Saturday at 1:00 p.m.

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Steve Hare
Steve Hare is the Chagrin Valley Conference's Sports Information Director. He also created and publishes, an online publication dedicated to providing hyperlocal coverage to area high school athletic programs. Hare began covering high school sports for the Lake County News Herald in 1997. Hare attended Willoughby South High School through the middle of his senior year, then graduated from Berkshire High School in Burton in 1986. He played football, wrestled and was an all-Geauga county baseball player (1986). He lives in Chardon with his wife Paulette and their children.

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