By Tony Maluso
Unlike college, there are no conference tournaments at the high school level.
It's not typical for a league's best teams to all gather at one location for a week, to see who emerges as the best.
Yet, it's happening this week at Findlay High School, as four of the Midland Athletic League's best teams will compete starting today in a Division IV district tournament, with a trip to regionals on the line.
Mohawk, New Riegel, Calvert and Carey finished first, second, third and fifth respectively in the MAL. The league's fourth place team, Fremont St. Joe, was knocked out in a sectional final thriller Saturday by Calvert.
"I think it represents our league really well to know all four of use got here," New Riegel coach Cindy Walerius said. "It shows how strong our league is. I know a lot people think the (Blanchard Valley Conference) is really strong, but I think the MAL is pretty strong as well, and the four of us all here shows that."
New Riegel and Carey will play the first game at 6 p.m., with Mohawk and Calvert following.
Mohawk is officially the MAL champions after going unbeaten through the regular season conference schedule. Although Warrior coach Eric Hoover said the team has some confidence knowing it beat each of the other three, he's well aware of a year ago when his team was on the other end of things. New Riegel won the conference, but Mohawk scored a measure of revenge winning a district final against the Blue Jackets on the road to a state appearance.
"I take both points of view. We should be confident, theres no reason not to be, but at the same time, we remember last year," Hoover said. "The intensity you might bring when you're out looking for revenge is sometimes higher. That's the intensity we are going to have to match, and be ready for."
Walerius is taking the mindset that the records are reset, and everyone's coming to Findlay unbeaten.
"This is tournament time, whatever our record is, now goes out the record," she said. "Whoever comes to play that night will win, and that night is it."
It's no mystery who the favorites are at Findlay this week. Many are expecting the veteran Mohawk (21-2) and New Riegel (22-1) teams to meet in a district final rematch. But Calvert and Carey are taking advantage of the underdog role.
"We told the girls 'We got nothing to lose, we're the underdogs, go and leave it all out on the floor. Play aggressive and play loose and let it all hang out,'" Calvert coach Greg Hendrix said.
"It's a new start, the way I see it," Carey coach Eric Vackert said. "I'm sure some teams might look at Mohawk and New Riegel with their gaudy records and that could be scary if you will, but we're taking the philosophy we have nothing to lose.
"I think all four of us are all familiar with each other. Experience will definitely be on Mohawk and New Riegel's side. "I think with us being a younger team and a lot of these girls, it will be their first time at districts. It will be a question of how they can handle the atmosphere."
Calvert and Carey are both coming off emotional sectional final victories. Carey took a five-game match against Arlington, while Calvert rallied from two games down to beat St. Joe.
For Calvert, Hendrix is hoping he can use Saturday's comeback as a motivational tool if his team finds itself in a similar situation.
"The best thing that came out of this game on Saturday is that they were so far down, and still able to find a way to get it done," he said. "You can talk all you want about having to keep fighting, but until it happens and they realize that if they do it, things can turn around and they can fight through. I'm hoping going through battles will show them fighting every single play, no matter the obstacle, you can overcome it."
Hendrix knows his team is facing a solid team without many weaknesses.
"When you scout these teams out, you look for weakneses. With Mohawk, there aren't any," he said. "You got to go out there and not be intimidated. You can't be scared, you got to go out there and not back down.
"When we played Mohawk the first time, we went toe-to-toe with them that first game. Then Mohawk got that first set and we never mentally recovered."
Hoover said he's looking for Calvert to make some adjustments, but is looking for his team to utilize its strengths to dictate how the match unfolds.
"I think they got a lot of confidence for sure just winning that big game against St. joe," he said. "I'm sure they'll make some adjustments. We need be ready to react to any adjustments they make.
"We got to play our game, and use our strengths, and make them have to adjust to our strengths rather than us having to adjust to theirs."
Meanwhile, the Carey team New Riegel sees tonight will be slightly different than the one it beat earlier in the season. Carey lost one of its top hitters, Shelby Seifert, midway through the season, but has overcome her loss with the solid play of a couple underclassmen.
"We had tough stretch of games (after Shelby went down) ... we've had some younger girls step up, especially Shelby Kin, a freshman. She's more or less been fulltime since then and she's been lights out. Also Adrienne Hackworth has stepped up and had to play some more, and she's getting better, and better, and better. "
Kin had 11 kills Saturday against Arlington. Walerius said although she's new to the varsity, she's well aware of what she can do.
"When we played against them earlier in the year, she really hurt us that night on JV," Walerius said. "She dominated. When she was in the front row, we got way behind. I thought she would be getting some playing time by the end of the year anyhow."
Still, Walerius feels a key to the match will be how her team can hit around Carey's Hannah Tong.
"Hannah Tong is just an unbelievable blocker," Walerius said. "We got to focus of hitting around her and not at her. We need to be smart on our hitting, make her move defensively. Try some shots to the outside to make her move to the block."
Vackert is hoping his team comes out tonight, in front of what he was sure would be a big, vocal crowd, minus the nerves it showed the first time the Blue Devils and Blue Jackets hooked up.
"The biggest thing that night, we played a little nervous," he said. "There was a big crowd that night and we came out and made unforced errors. First game, we missed six serves. When you do that against a team of their caliber we gave ourself no chance."
Four MAL schools, two will move on to Thursday's final, and only one will move on to next week's regional.
Normally, a district tournament and a win-or-go home situation creates a special atmosphere and intensity. Hoover says that's even kicked up a notch with the familiarity each team has with each other.
"You're more familiar with the league teams," he said. "There might be some people you might not get along with from something that happened in another sport, or some that are your friends you play club teams and traveling teams with. It makes it a much more interesting dynamic."