The state’s two most recent volleyball champions faced off in front a crowd of more than a thousand people on Friday night.
Notre Dame got the win over St. Henry.
The annual Playing for a Purpose game supports the I Have Wings Breast Cancer Foundation that Janet Chambers helped found in the early 2000s as a breast cancer survivor. Chambers received a stage II diagnosis on her 40th birthday but continues to share her story and teach others about the disease. Others including St. Henry Head Coach Maureen Kaiser shared their stories before the varsity game began at Boone County.
Then the game began.
The Notre Dame Pandas (16-3) downed the Crusaders (17-6) in a 3-1 (25-19, 16-25, 25-11, 25-23) victory.
“I think in the second game we dug ourselves into a hole and you kind of have two choices at that point as to how you’re going to respond,” said Leslie Litmer, Notre Dame head coach. “You can role over for the rest of the match. We made some adjustments that they bought into ultimately. Hitting negatives among other things made us break down. But they executed other parts of our game plan from the get-go. We have a lot of older girls that are just confident in each other and I think that speaks volumes for how they can come back even in the last game here.”
The players charged out onto the floor to celebrate the win with their classmates. Most everyone in attendance wore white and pink shirts to support the cause.
St. Henry unofficially had 43 digs to 41 for Notre Dame. People knew the liberos on both teams (Notre Dame senior Kamden Schrand and Crusader junior Elizabeth Tabeling) would lead the way and they came through with 24 and 18, respectively. Notre Dame senior defensive specialist Kayla Hostetler added seven digs.
“We talk about the focus on first contact all the time,” Litmer said. “That’s not just on serve receive. That’s also for us to get points when we’re serving and that starts the rally. We know our strengths and so we try to match our teams up. Kamden does a great job anchoring the back row. We also have a lot of people who can step back and pass three if we get into a bind.”
The aces also made a difference.
The Pandas had nine to four for the Crusaders. Sophomore Julia Grace landed four for Notre Dame including two crucial ones in game one. The Pandas had four aces to none for the Crusaders in the first game.
“It’s about confidence. You have to have confidence as soon as you step out onto the court,” Grace said. “The positivity on the court makes you want to put that ball in play and ace someone. Teammates push you to work harder and that’s exactly what we have on this team. That’s what makes us win.”
The blocks were unofficially even with Notre Dame recording eight to seven for St. Henry. Freshman middle blocker Audrey Dyas had three for Notre Dame with senior opposite hitter Peyton Mast and sophomore hitter Ella Goetz recording two each.
St. Henry junior middle hitter Alivia Skidmore finished with 15 kills, 10 digs and two aces and junior setter/outside hitter Macy Lentz had four kills and 30 assists. But Dyas landed some blocks on Skidmore in the fourth game to help that Panda cause at the net.
“Playing for a Purpose hands down is the best event in high school sports,” Kaiser said. “The night in general was a success. We have a lot of work to do. Notre Dame played fantastic. We had so many unforced errors and you can’t beat a team like that. I’m playing a couple freshmen. To play in this environment is a learning curve. But as I told them, it’s (Friday) September 23rd. We’re going to hit the gym on Monday and get back at it.”
The 6-foot-2-inch Dyas credited going against senior 6-3 Sydney Nolan in practice for helping prepare for hitters like Skidmore. Nolan had 12 kills and Mast had 10 for Notre Dame. Sophomore Riley McCloskey followed with nine and Dyas had seven.
“When we get a huge block, our energy goes straight up through the roof,” Dyas said. “We know how to put it down. We work on discipline blocking all day in practice. We knew each other and we trust each other so I know if I get a touch, it’s just going to be up.”
The two Notre Dame setters did their thing. Freshman Lizzy Larkins had 19 assists to nine for sophomore Lauren Ott.
Both teams tried to hit the ball all over the court. St. Henry saw 6-2 hitter Josie Schroder record seven kills and five digs and junior hitter Anna Guard place 11 kills. Schroder and Guard had three blocks each.
After St. Henry won the second game, Notre Dame used a 5-0 run to go up 10-5. Schrand had some big digs during that time. McCloskey hit one to the far right corner after one during that run.
“We kept the play alive and ran what we needed to run and be able to put the ball down,” Schrand said. “We work on that in practice every single day. It sets the tone for every single play and just sets up our hitting, our blocking, everything that we need. It also sets the tone for the match. If you don’t pass well, you’re not going to have a good match.”
Dyas and Mast had blocks to put Notre Dame up 22-10. Skidmore landed a kill before Nolan responded with one to give the Pandas the third game. In between the third and fourth games, Notre Dame Associate Head Coach Jenna Leistner pulled aside Nolan and sophomore outside hitter Ava Tilden to point out some things.
“We’re very fortunate we have a lot of hitters to where we don’t have to rely on just one, two or three of them,” Leistner said. “All six hitters are phenomenal. Our setters are able to switch it up, look at who’s blocking on the other side and look at our match-ups. It opens things up for other hitters to perform.”
St. Henry came out strong in the fourth game going up 12-7 after Schroder landed a block. But Notre Dame rallied behind another Mast and Nolan blocks to trim the margin to 13-12.
Notre Dame tied the game 21-21 then went up 23-21 on sophomore Ella Goetz and Nolan kills. After an exchange of hitting errors, Skidmore landed a kill to make it 24-23 Notre Dame. But Larkins found Mast on the right side, who put one through the St. Henry defense to secure the Notre Dame win.
But while the same team that won the regular season match-up has also won the 9th Region Tournament game the past three years, history shows the opposite can happen. St. Henry won the post-season meeting in 2017 and 2018 after losing the regular season meeting.
“Like I tell the girls, volleyball is a mental game,” Kaiser said. “It’s what you learn and how you make corrections for the next time that you play. That’s what we’re going to do. But keep your head high. It was a great night, great event. I’m proud.”
Both teams play again Tuesday in 9th Region match-ups. Notre Dame plays host to Cooper at 7 p.m. and St. Henry plays host to Dixie Heights at 7:30 p.m. in a key 34th District battle.