STOW — There was a familiar feel to the match Saturday when Walsh Jesuit took on Stow-Munroe Falls in the Division I district volleyball final at Stow’s James G. Tyree Gymnasium.
For the Warriors, it was a familiar end at Tyree, as Walsh claimed its fourth straight district title. For the Bulldogs, Walsh remains a stubborn nemesis.
It was a tight match, but the Warriors claimed the district title in four sets, winning 24-26, 25-17, 25-19, 27-25. Walsh improved to 16-9 on the season and advanced to a Division I regional semifinal game Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Hudson, where it will face Massillon Jackson.
Stow ended the season at 16-9. The loss marked the fourth time since 2011 that Stow was eliminated by Walsh in the district final.
Walsh coach Brad Seislove said his team knew it was in for a fight against the Bulldogs.
"We did a lot of preparation for this," Seislove said. "We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We talked about how every point we needed to play like it could be the end of our season. At the end of the first set, even though we didn’t win it, we were able to get in our rhythm."
Stow coach Lizzy McDade had to blink back tears when reflecting on her team’s effort.
"It’s just disappointing. You could tell how much they wanted it," McDade said. "We just didn’t get a few calls and a few bounces. As a coach, I could not be more proud of them."
Walsh’s strategy was to try to serve at Stow’s outside hitters, particularly senior Lizzy Stefanov, in an attempt to hobble Stow’s attack.
"We wanted to make Lizzy work hard," Seislove said. "With a player like that, you can’t stop her, you just have to slow her down."
"I was expecting that," Stefanov said. "When you’re a good team, you often serve at the other team’s best player to get her out of system. I just didn’t want this to be the last game I played here. It’s bittersweet."
Stefanov was all over the court for Stow, finishing with a match-high 24 kills and 18 digs. However, Walsh’s attack was a bit more varied in its 6-2 system, as senior Dana Dull had 16 kills, junior Megan Merril had 12 kills and senior Katie Freund had eight.
Stow came out firing in the first set, as six different Bulldogs had kills in the set. Middle hitter Kira Philpot had two blocks in the set, as Stow took the early lead at 7-2.
Stow looked to be in command at 23-18, but Walsh then rallied off the serve of libero Amelia Smith, tying the set at 23, before a kill by Stefanov.
A service error by Stow tied the set at 24-24, but Stow got a kill from libero Clair O’Verko and a hitting error by Dull gave Stow the first set.
Walsh again got off to a slow start in set two, as Seislove called time out with his team down 7-2.
"I told them there was a lot of volleyball still to be played," Seislove said. "We got after it from there."
After Stow took a 10-6 lead, Walsh turned the set around by scoring 10 of the next 11 points. Up by as much as 20-12, Walsh clinched set two with a kill from Freund.
Set three saw Walsh assert itself at the net more, as the Warriors grabbed an early 6-3 lead and never trailed thereafter. A hitting error by Stefanov gave set three to Walsh.
With their season on the line, Stow came out firing in the fourth set, which ended up being tied on 11 different points. Stow junior Molly Richards put up five of the 11 kills in the set. Dull and Merril each had five kills for Walsh, while Stefanov had seven kills in the set.
After a kill by Stefanov tied the set at 22-22, two straight hitting errors by Walsh gave Stow set point and a chance to force a fifth set. However, Walsh got kills from Merrill and Dull to tie it again at 24.
An ace from Merrill gave Walsh match point, but Stefanov answered with a kill to tie it at 25-25.
A Dull kill gave Walsh another chance to win it. This time, Walsh closed the match as middle hitter Jackie Deiniger put the kill down.
Walsh setters Kourtney Holland and Alexa Schnell had 24 and 20 assists, respectively, while Stow setter Lauren Fair had 45 assists in her final high school game.
Smith led all players with 25 digs, while Dull added 19 kills for the Warriors.
The game marked the end of the high school volleyball careers of Stefanov, Fair, O’Verko and Brooke Britton for the Bulldogs. McDade said it would be tough to see the quartet go, noting Stefanov and Fair each were four-year varisty players.
"As a first-year coach, I couldn’t have asked for a better group," McDade said. "They worked hard for everything and they were never entitled."