ELIDA McComb came dressed as the underdog Wednesday night against Mohawk in the Division IV Regional Volleyball Tournament at the Elida Fieldhouse.
And one game in, they tricked Mohawk into believing the Panthers were going to be a walk in the park.
But three games later, it was McComb that was treating itself to a regional final appearance against Buckeye Central, who dispatched Cardinal Stritch in the opener.
The Buckettes (25-2) moved to the regional final for the first time since 2008 thanks to a 25-13, 25-17, 25-15 victory against the Cardinals (18-9).
"Regional finals. That's the important part right now. Right now, it's win or go home, so we'll take it," Buckeye Central coach Bill Bonham said. "We could have played better. We could have played more intense, there's no doubt about it. We didn't come out like we did with St. Paul. You go from a team with the history, the tradition and the rivalry of St. Paul to a team you don't know. It's hard to get pumped up for that. We were too confident with these guys."
For Cardinal Stritch, it was a case of running into a buzzsaw that was the Buckettes. It may have been fortunate for the Cardinals that Buckeye Central wasn't playing its elite game.
"Buckeye Central is a very good program. They took it to us," Cardinal Stritch coach Chad Rutkowski said. "They have some great outside (hitters). They really know how to put the ball away and terminate. We prepared for it, but they did even better than we anticipated."
Buckeye Central opened a 5-2 lead thanks to Jenna Delarber, who had a pair of kills. It stretched it to 15-4 before Stritch made a move back into the game. The Cardinals cut it to seven twice, 18-11 and 19-12, but could get no closer as Buckeye Central cruised to a 25-13 victory.
"We were overconfident and went into cruise control there and didn't continue to push," Bonham said. "We start taking everything for granted and start playing with them instead of to beat them."
Stritch was move competitive in the second game, leading 12-11 at one point before a 6-0 run left the Buckettes in the lead for good, 17-12. Stritch cut it back down to four on a few occasions but never closer than 19-15 as Buckeye Central went on to win 25-17.
The third game was more of the same. Buckeye Central led early by three, 6-3 and 9-6, before the Cardinals tied it at nine. A kill from Maddie Williams and a block by Delarber aided Buckeye Central in taking the lead for good, 12-9. BC pushed it to 18-13 before Stritch called a timeout, thanks in part to the play of Sierra Hanes and Kendra Schultz, who each had a pair of kills in the surge.
Cardinal Stritch picked up two points to make it 18-15, but three more Schultz kills as part of a 7-0 run finished the game and match.
Despite the victory, Bonham said his team overlooked the Cardinals.
"Part of it was (their record) and part of it was we looked at their schedule and we know that they struggled with the MAL. They struggled with St. Joe, Hopewell-Loudon and St. Wendelin and those teams didn't have their best years that they've had in the past," Bonham said. "So when we're compared with a Mohawk and a New Riegel, that kind hurt us mentally and we were taking it too easy."
Delarber was one of the key reasons the Buckettes were able to dominate at the line. The freshman middle hitter was sprained her ankle in the district final the week before and played through the pain.
"It was definitely pretty awesome (to get the win)," Delarber said. "(My ankle) is still pretty sore but I played through it. Once I started playing, I was fine."
Bonham said she has matured as the season has rolled on.
"She's grown hasn't she?" Bonham asked. "The kid is tough. She's maturing right in front of us."
Delarber and Williams each had nine kills each and Sammi Marcum had 14 kills and 18 digs to lead the way. Emily Weithman and Kilee Kimmel had 21 and 14 kills, respectively. Brooke Karl and Williams each had 17 digs.
Stritch was paced by Sara Turner-Smith, who had 13 kills and 11 digs. Alexa McCourt had 18 assists in the loss.
"We haven't been here since 1999. It was one of those things like deer in headlights," Rutkowski said. "I had hoped we were have put forth a better effort. Offensively we didn't have a whole lot of opportunities to convert, I don't think."
The nightcap saw McComb (23-3) upend the Warriors (23-3), 14-25, 25-15, 25-22, 25-21, in what was a shock to most people except the Panthers.
"Tonight was about pride," McComb coach Leslie Kahle said, fighting back tears. "We kind of felt like we've been underestimated this year as far as our talent goes. Tonight we just said we were going to step out there and give the best game that we have. And that was for sure what we did."
Mohawk coach Eric Hoover said he felt uneasy from the moment he walked in the fieldhouse doors.
"It was just weird. I felt there was a weird feeling in the place from the moment I walked in," he said. "(McComb) played really well. I saw some film on them and I felt they sped up their offense since then. And we had a lot of trouble with it defensively. We just couldn't get there in time to make enough plays there at the net to slow it down enough for our back row players to get it up."
The Panthers did an effective job getting Mohawk out of system and instead of attacking like the Warriors did in the first game, Mohawk spent most of the night on the defensive. On the night, McComb had 35 blocks.
"We couldn't attack the ball and we were scoring in the middle of their defense but we couldn't get it there often enough, I guess," Hoover said. "They battled and did a good job of ending runs for us. We played a lot of offense that first game. The rest of the night, we played a lot of defense. That's not how you're going to win volleyball games."
Mohawk rolled to an easy first game victory. The Warriors led 8-3 before Kahle called a timeout. McComb closed it to 8-7 before Mohawk surged ahead 16-9, forcing another McComb timeout. While it stopped the run, it didn't stop the result as Mohawk rolled to a 25-14 victory.
"I think they had a wonderful, magnetic crowd," Kahle said. "I think, at first, that shook us a little bit. As I talked to the girls, they started playing better and it just feel into place for us."
The second game found McComb on the attack, with Jenna Huffman blocking one and killing three others as the Panthers jumped out to a 7-3 lead. Mohawk's timeout didn't stop the bleeding as McComb ran off four more points before the Warriors could get a sideout, with McComb serving into the net.
But uncharacteristic hitting and passing errors found Mohawk falling farther behind, 20-10 before Mohawk tried to make a little run. But blocks and kills from Briana Herr pushed the Panthers on to the 25-15 victory. She had three kills and four blocks in the game and countless other times, altered Mohawk's shots.
"My goal every game is to block as many balls as I can," said Herr, who is bound for Hillsdale after high school to continue her volleyball career. "I just happened to block more than I usually do."
The third game turned out to be the turning point in the match. The two teams traded leads early but Mohawk started to build a lead midway through the match, 18-13, before McComb called a timeout.
With the teams in their respective huddles, the momentum pendulum silently swung to McComb's favor.
"I told the girls to "collect yourself. You are better than this and go out strong,'" Kahle said.
McComb went on a 6-1 run out of the time out to tie the game up at 19. The two squads tied at 20, 21 and 22 before three Mohawk errors gave McComb the game.
"If we hadn't won game three, I don't know if we would have won game four or if it would have gone to to a game five. That game three was pivotal," Herr said.
Mohawk looked like a team on the edge of elimination in game four. McComb jumped out to a 6-1 margin before Hoover called timeout. It didn't help. McComb pushed it to 15-5 before Hoover called his final timeout.
Kahle said she wasn't comfortable with the lead.
"We're very used to having great leads and losing them and we're used to being very far behind and coming back and winning," Kahle said. "So when we're ahead or we're behind, I don't get too excited or fret too much, because I know the girls are going to pull through tonight."
And as it turned out, deservedly so as Mohawk chipped away at the lead and cut it to three, 20-17, forcing McComb to call its final timeout. The Panthers went up five again, 22-17, before Mohawk put back at three, 22-19 and 23-20. But a kill from Herr put McComb on the edge of game point. Julie Adelsperger blocked a shot to keep the game alive at 24-21 but a bad pass ended the match in McComb's favor, 25-21.
"Everyone has talked about Mohawk all year and rightfully so," Kahle said. "They're an outstanding program. I think that, especially coming from the BVC, I feel that at times people overlook us because they say our conference isn't as strong. I think we proved tonight that our conference is very strong."
Sarah Parker finished her Mohawk career with 13 kills and six blocks in her final game. Ashley Parker had 31 assists. Kasey Adelsperger had 10 kills. Clara Adelsperger had six blocks, 10 blocks and two aces. Lynsey Trusty had 25 digs and Taylor McClain had 15.
For the Parkers and Trusty, it marked the end of a career that saw them reach the state semifinal last season and regional semifinal this season.
"They've been awesome for a long time," Hoover said. "It's going to be obviously very hard to fill their shoes, if you even can. They are three of the best players to ever play at Mohawk, without a doubt."
Herr finished with 15 blocks and 20 kills. Huffman had 15 kills and Hannah Bundy had 53 digs. Brenna Dee had 25 assists and Huffman had 22.
"Briana Herr is a dynamic player," Kahle said. "That young lady knows how to use herself and the team rallies around her. She knows where to go and what to do and she executes what she's told to do."
For McComb, it's going back to a place it was two years ago: the regional final.
Buckeye Central faces off with McComb on Saturday at 2 p.m. back at the Elida Fieldhouse.