Jackson ends dream season for Nordonia volleyball in regional semifinal
HUDSON — The Nordonia volleyball team has been on fire all season, but the Knights were making their first trip to regionals since 1984.
By contrast, Massillon Jackson has been a fixture at Ray "Buck" Hyser Gymnasium over much of the past decade. The Polar Bears also held the distinction of being the only team to beat the Knights this season — in three sets on Aug. 25.
The stakes were much higher when the two squads met in a Division I regional semifinal Thursday night at Hudson.
As it turned out, the Knights' dream season both began and ended with losses to Jackson.
Nordonia (23-2) fought back from a slow start, but Jackson was just a bit sharper, as the Polar Bears scored a 25-14, 21-25, 25-23, 25-18 win.
Jackson (24-0) advanced to the Division I regional final against Padua Franciscan on Saturday.
Knights coach Tim Vasko said the effort was there, but Jackson was simply the better team Thursday.
"They had a great season," Vasko said of his squad. "They struggled with serve receipt tonight, and when you struggle with serve receipt, it's hard to win. Obviously, Jackson is 24-0 for a reason. They had us playing out of system a lot tonight.
"We just had too many unforced errors. We hit a .85 percentage tonight. That's not going to get it done. We just didn't play our game tonight."
In her final game as a Knight, senior Joy Banks led Nordonia with 14 kills and 14 digs.
"I think we started out slow because we were a bit nervous," Banks said. "Once we got to the second set, we came in with mindset that we couldn't let that happen again. I think we played well, but they just played a bit better tonight."
The Knights looked to have a serious case of big-game jitters in the first set and Jackson took full advantage.
With the Knights committing numerous errors to start the match, Jackson led 9-2 early and forced Vasko to call a timeout. The Polar Bears stretched the lead to as much as 15-2 behind 10 consecutive service points by libero Jaidan Hockman.
Nordonia pulled the lead back to 18-8 at one point on four consecutive points by Banks, but Jackson's lead was never in danger.
Nordonia fought off two set point with a kill and an ace by outside hitter Mya Sopata, but a service error handed Jackson the first set.
Jackson coach Cortney Goodwin said the Polar Bears' experience at the regional level was a huge plus.
"I was kind of expecting the first set to go that way," Goodwin said. "I knew it would be the most important and I thought it would be the easiest to win.
"We've got four girls who have been in this gym before. They've been to the elite eight, so they're used to this."
With the nerves out of their system, however, the Knights fought back to tie the match.
After set two was tied on 10 of the first 13 points, the Knights got their first lead of the match at 16-13, forcing Jackson to call timeout.
The point of the match for Nordonia came at 22-19, when they dug out a ball at shoe-top level to pull out the point.
Jackson cut the lead to 22-21, but Nordonia got the sideout and Sopata served out the set, getting an ace on set point.
Set three was back-and-forth, with Nordonia taking an early 8-4 lead off Sopata's serve, only to have Jackson take a 15-11 advantage behind the serving of setter Aly Stanislawski.
After a kill by Nordonia's Faith Sparks tied the set at 22, Banks scored an ace to make 23-22 and force Jackson to call timeout.
However, two consecutive hitting errors by Nordonia gave the set point to Jackson, and a kill by Bears senior Ally Woolbert gave them the third set.
Woolbert finished with 13 kills, while Jackson was led by Leena Patibandla's 15 kills.
Paitbandla and Banks went kill-for-kill in the fourth set, which was tied all the way to point 14.
However, Jackson took a 17-14 lead and then benefited from a disputed call at 20-16.
Vasko called timeout twice late in the set, but the Knights couldn't recover. Jackson clinched the match went Sopata put a kill attempt out.
Nordonia setter Riley Monroe finished with 36 assists, and libero Carina Collica had 21 digs and middle hitter Celina Puscian had two blocks.
Stanislawki had 39 assists for Jackson, and Hockman had 17 digs, 12 service points and five aces.
Vasko noted all of his seniors played a huge role on Nordonia's season. The Knights will lose Collica, Sparks, Banks, Monroe and middle hitter Aleana Mason to graduation this spring.
Although she was sad to see it end, Banks — who has committed to play volleyball at Northern Kentucky University — said she was proud of the progress the Knights made during her tenure.
"I tried to leave an imprint on this program before I go," Banks said. "I'm really happy with everything I've done."