Ayersville jumped out to a big early lead against Stryker and kept the pressure on, advancing to the Division IV district finals at Defiance High School with a 25-12, 26-24, 25-19 victory over the Panthers.
The win pushes the Pilots (21-3) one win away from regionals, and also avenges an earlier loss in the season to Stryker (16-9).
After taking an early 4-1 lead in the first set, the Pilots added to the cushion with a pair of aces by Kayla Zachrich, followed by an Emily Cramer kill to force a Stryker timeout.
Ayersville coach Julie Gustwiller noted how important the opening run was for her team.
"Earlier on this season, Stryker had come to our place and beaten us," said Gustwiller. "We had the revenge factor Monday at practice. We scouted them. We watched film on them and we were prepared for them. My players stepped up and did absolutely everything I wanted them to do."
Ayersville continued to push, never leading by less than 10 after that point and going on to win the first set. For Stryker coach Krissy Cheslock, it was a disappointing start to the match.
"We just never really settled in," explained Cheslock. "We just didn't settle in. Ayersville definitely came ready to play. We are kind of a slow-starting team and we just never really found our focus tonight."
Facing a 22-19 deficit in the second set, the Panthers looked poised to take control of the momentum after a kill and a block administered by Baily Grime. However, it was an pair of seniors in Zachrich and Kaleigh Martin notching kills at critical moments to help give Ayersville the lead at 25-24. An unforced error by the Panthers gave the second set to the Pilots.
"These seniors play every game like it's their last," commented Gustwiller. "I have six seniors and a lot of returning letterwinners and they play very well together. I think in a tough situation like that, they can easily rely on each other."
Facing a two-set deficit, Stryker battled to a 6-6 deadlock early in the third set when Ayersville gained the lead from a Zachrich kill, before following that up with a pair of slams by Kaleigh Hug. A pair of kills each from Zachrich and Cramer as well as a point from Amanda Cook helped stretch the margin to 13-9 midway through the set. After taking a 24-19 advantage, it was Cramer finishing off the match with a game-winning kill after a long rally to send the Pilots to the district finals.
"You have to be mentally in the game and focused every single time," said Gustwiller about her team's mentality in the third set. "We worked on that throughout the season and I think we came ready to take this game no matter what."
The third set highlighted the same problem the Panthers faced all night, as they were not able to garner any sustained momentum when it was needed most.
"We really knew blocking was going to be key tonight," remarked Cheslock. "We kind of got settled into blocking here or there for a minute and then we lost it. We were just on defense all night, and we weren't able to put up a game plan ourselves to make sure we were aggressive. We kind of were just chasing, chasing, chasing, and then we would get it over. We never got to play our game or be in control and run our offense that we needed to run."
Ayersville moves on to face Cardinal Stritch on Thursday night at Defiance with a trip to regionals hanging in the balance.
"I like to say one game at a time," noted Gustwiller. "That's what we've thought all season long and that's what has gotten us where we are. We don't ever think of the next team. We just think of the team at hand, but the sky is the limit."
Cook had 35 assists on 89-89 setting plus five digs to lead the Pilots, while Zachrich and Hug each had 13 kills. Cramer added 12 kills, while Martin had five kills and Nikki Schroeder notched five digs.
Conner Varner paced the Panthers with 17 digs, while Baily Grime was 66-67 setting with 16 assists to go along with three blocks, five kills, and five digs. Brooke Ruffer added seven assists, three blocks, 12 kills, and six digs.
In the night's opening contest, it was Cardinal Stritch handing state-ranked Edon its first loss of the season in a stunning upset, 25-22, 12-25, 25-21, 25-23.
The Cardinals now clash with Ayersville on Thursday night in the district final. Ashtin Miller had 17 digs and 21 assists on 63-63 setting to lead Edon (23-1), ranked No. 12 in the final coaches poll. Sydney Stoll chipped in with 12 kills while finishing 52-52 setting with eight assists to go along with 37 digs. Barb Hug had 23 digs and eight kills.
Ayersville def. Stryker, 25-12, 26-24, 25-19
Stryker (16-9) - Conner Varner 13-13 serving, 26-27 serve receive, 17 digs; Brooke Ruffer 12-12 serving, 41-41 setting, 7 assists, 3 blocks, 38-40 hitting, 12 kills, 6 digs; Baily Grime 9-10 serving, 66-67 setting, 16 assists, 3 blocks, 22-25 hitting, 5 kills, 5 digs; Torey Varner 6-6 serving, 18-21 serve receive, 13-16 hitting; Rebecca Fritch 6-6 serving, 7-9 hitting; Connor Sullivan 8-8 serve receive, 6 digs; Brier Chappius 3 blocks.
Ayersville (21-3) - Kaleigh Hug 33-35 hitting, 13 kills, 19-21 passing, 8 digs, 9-9 serving; Kaleigh Martin 15-15 hitting, 5 kills, 10-13 serving; Amanda Cook 89-89 setting, 35 assists, 14-14 passing, 5 digs, 6-8 serving; Arica Rohn 10-10 hitting, 4 kills, 7-8 passing, 8-9 serving; Kayla Zachrich 27-27 hitting, 13 kills, 12-14 passing, 4 digs, 4 blocks, 14-14 serving, 3 aces; Nikki Schroeder 9-12 passing, 5 digs, 6-6 serving; Emily Cramer 38-41 hitting, 12 kills, 21-23 passing, 3 digs, 11-13 serving.
Cardinal Stritch def. Edon, 25-22, 12-25, 25-21, 25-23
Cardinal Stritch (15-10) - No stats.
Edon (23-1) - Sydney Stoll 12 kills, 37 digs, 26-26 serving, 52-52 setting, 8 assists; Chelsea Chapin 11 kills; Barb Hug 8 kills, 20-20 serving, 23 digs; Marah Mason 15-16 serving, 15 digs; Emily Bockover 11-11 serving; Ashtin Miller 10-10 serving, 63-63 setting, 21 assists, 17 digs.