ELIDA - McComb may have drawn first blood, but it was Buckeye Central that dealt the fatal blow.
In the game of predator versus prey Saturday afternoon, it was the prey that prevailed as the Buckettes knocked off McComb, 25-23, 25-18, 25-20, in the Division IV regional volleyball tournament final at the Elida Fieldhouse to clinch their 10th trip to the state tournament.
"It's a dream that everybody wants," Buckeye Central coach Bill Bonham said through tears. "Every coach wants to do it. Everybody dreams about it. Not everybody gets a chance to do it. Everybody talks about the team that went to state or whatever. So to be a part of it (is special), but more importantly with this group."
The first game was stopped just seven points in for about eight minutes while trainers cleaned up blood from Emily Weithman, who had been elbowed by Sammi Marcum in the process of celebrating a point the play before.
Weithman had to be on her guard, because there was a lot more celebration to come, with the Buckettes overcoming McComb's size advantage with exceptional defense, savvy serving and smart shot placement.
"I never would have guessed we would have been here right now. I'm so proud of our team," said Marcum, while clutching the regional championship trophy. "It just feels awesome to be able to say we're regional champs and we're going to state."
McComb, which knocked off Mohawk on Wednesday to get to its second regional in three years, didn't have the same fire as the Buckettes.
"We didn't come with our A game tonight and we weren't as aggressive as we needed to be," McComb coach Leslie Kahle said. "I don't think there was any emotional letdown. I just think the girls weren't as aggressive as they needed to be based on what we saw from Buckeye Central. We knew they were a very strong program. We just didn't rise to the occasion today as we should have."
Kahle said that was the difference in the game.
"(Buckeye Central) was playing with a lot of heart and getting up a lot more balls than what we anticipated they would," Kahle said. "Buckeye Central is a great program. They're coached very well and they knew to go after us."
The Panthers (23-4) led the first game early, 13-9, before Buckeye Central started its first of many comebacks on the afternoon. A 5-2 run caused McComb to call a timeout, but the Buckettes (26-2) won the point out of the timeout to tie it at 15.
They didn't stop there. The Buckettes pulled ahead 17-15 and held a lead until it was knotted at 19 and again at 20. A kill from Maddie Williams bookended by McComb hitting errors gave Buckeye Central a 23-20 lead. After a Becca Leppelmeier kill, a well-placed shot by Marcum from the back row found the floor to put the Buckettes at game point, 24-21.
A pair of kills from McComb made it 24-23, forcing Bonham to call a timeout. It was the mental break Buckeye Central needed. Out of the timeout, Marcum hammered a kill that hit her number's counterpart square in the kisser, sending her backward and BC on to the 25-23 victory.
The second game picked up where Marcum's kill left off as the Buckettes cruised out to a 3-0 lead and hovered around that margin until midway in the match. Leading 9-7, kills from Williams, Jenna Delarber, Marcum and another from Williams put the Buckettes out front 13-7. When McComb's first timeout didn't work, taken when the Panthers were down 11-7, Kahle was forced to take another when it was 16-8. That one eventually paid some dividends as McComb climbed back into it, cutting the margin to 20-16, before Bonham called a timeout. A 5-2 run after that closed out the second game, 25-18.
McComb owned the first half of the third game. The Panthers led 7-3 and 15-9 by the time Bonham had called both timeouts. But the Buckettes slowly chipped away on the margin, cutting it 16-12, 17-14 and 18-16 before McComb was called for a net violation. That put the ball in Williams' hand to serve.
Williams served up an ace on her first attempt, forcing McComb to call a timeout.
"I told them basically that we needed to get a decent pass. We were swinging our arms too much on passing instead of having good quiet arms on the back. We needed to be sure we were transitioning hard and attacking hard," Kahle said. "We got tentative and they were creeping in with points. We just weren't executing the ball the way we should have."
A McComb error out of the timeout, a kill from Marcum and a Sierra Hanes block forced McComb's final timeout with BC in charge, 20-18.
"When she used that second one and we came out and won off that second timeout, then it started feeling like (we were going to win)," Bonham said. "One of our goals was to win every timeout. We wanted to get every point that was scored after each timeout. In the long run, that's a four-point swing every game that turns into an eight-point swing really."
They only missed that objective on one of the 10 timeouts called in the match.
Two more hitting errors and another Williams ace put Buckeye Central up 23-18 before McComb was able to stop the streak.
Delarber made it 24-19 but it was followed by a BC hitting error. Marcum finished it with well-placed shot to the back left corner of the floor and the celebration began.
"This group has just overcome every obstacle that we've seen. They've stepped up to every challenge thrown their way, whether it was from me or from each other or from any opponent we've seen," Bonham said. "These kids believe. They bought into the system. I should go out and sell cars this weekend to all these kids that turn 16 because these kids believe anything I tell them right now."
Williams was perfect on 24 serves with seven aces while adding 13 kills and 13 digs.
"I was so nervous coming in that my hands were shaking. But once the second game started, I kind of settled down," Williams said. "As the game went on and I didn't miss any serves, I got more confident and started to serve more (aggressively). I knew at that point I could get them over going hard."
Marcum had 14 kills and six digs. Schultz and Delarber each had six kills. Brooke Karl led the defensive effort with 21 digs. Kilee Kimmel had 21 assists and Weithman doled out 19 assists.
"Defense and aggressive serving. That was the big thing," Bonham said. "We knew they had the big girls and we knew they had offense. Our goal was to frustrate them and get them out of rhythm. I didn't want them getting any momentum. We had a lot of people tell us that the aggressive serving was what we needed to do and attack any way possible so they couldn't run their offense."
McComb was paced by Jenna Huffman's 11 kills followed by Briana Derr's nine. Brenna Dee had 19 assists and Hannah Bundy had 17 while adding 19 digs. Maddy Roth had 13 digs in the loss.
"Jenna Huffman is an outstanding player. She's a freshman and she's going to have a lot more great games behind her, which is exciting," Kahle said.
The Buckettes, ranked No. 6 in the final coaches' poll, move on to face Marion Local. The Flyers, ranked No. 1 in the state, knocked off Fort Loramie on Saturday, 25-19, 25-16, 25-14.
The two clubs will clash Friday at 2 p.m. at the Nutter Center at Wright State University following the Division IV opener at noon, which will see Eastern Beaver (27-0) tangle with Kidron Central Christian (26-2) in the other semifinal.