GRAND ISLAND – Norfolk Catholic overcame a six-point deficit in the third set, then rolled in the fourth to defeat Southern Valley 25-22, 23-25, 25-23, 25-15 in the C1-7 district final at Northwest High School here.
The win sends Norfolk Catholic to the state tournament, for the first time since 2012, as the No. 7 seed. The Knights will face No. 2 seed Wahoo, which defeated the Knights on Sept. 12 in Wahoo, 25-22, 25-23, 22-25, 25-20.
Southern Valley, a school in Furnas County in southwest Nebraska, which serves the communities of Oxford, Stamford, Orleans and Beaver City, featured 6-foot outside hitter Lauryn Samuelson, who was as good as advertised, especially early.
Samuelson scored kills on the Eagles' first five points, including one from the back row.
Meanwhile, Norfolk Catholic played without its talented middle hitter, Mary Fennessy, who severely injured her knee in Monday's subdistrict semifinal against Battle Creek.
In her place, Knights' coach Michaela Bellar inserted sophomore Jozy Piper, who more than held her own throughout the match.
“Having the whole week of practice without Mary was big,” Bellar said. “It's not easy losing a player and the girls are still bummed about it, but Jozy stepped in and has been working hard in practice and been doing a great job of filling that role for us.”
Piper scored kills on three of the Knights' first 12 points in the first set. Her third gave Norfolk Catholic a 12-8 lead.
The Knights maintained the first-set advantage the rest of the way but had to sweat it out at the end. Channatee Robles' tip kill gave Norfolk Catholic six set points at 24-18.
The red and white needed almost all of of them. A Southern Valley kill, a Norfolk Catholic attack error, a Southern Valley service ace and Norfolk Catholic net violation, cut the Knights' lead to 24-22.
Finally, a Southern Valley service error ended the set in favor of the Knights.
The Eagles seized the momentum in the second set. Southern Valley led 12-9 when Norfolk Catholic's Hayden Wolf dove in an attempt to field the serve of Southern Valley's Grace Hogeland. Wolf's head hit the floor and opened a gash above her right eye.
Referees delayed the match for about seven minutes as Norfolk Catholic coaches and medical staff taped up Wolf's cut and representatives from the the host school cleaned up the blood on the court.
“I ended up hitting my head pretty hard on the floor,” Wolf said, “but, we got through it; we're all good.”
When play resumed, Southern Valley went on a 5-3 run highlighted by back-to-back kills from Jennifer Moenning.
The Eagles led 18-12 when Wolf, now sporting a bandage above her right eye, heated up. Four kills, including one on an overpass sparked a 7-2 Knights' rally to pull Catholic to within 20-19.
But a Norfolk Catholic attack error ended the rally and Southern Valley's Samuelson and Moenning recorded kills in leading the Eagles to a 25-23 second-set win.
With the match tied at 1-1, and a slow start in the third set, many of the Norfolk Catholic fans who made the 110-mile trip to Grand Island could feel the season slipping away.
A Norfolk Catholic service error gave Southern Valley a 19-13 lead. Robles then recorded a kill from the middle to pull the Knights to within 19-14. That's when Taylor Kautz went to work.
The junior libero served Norfolk Catholic back into the set. Southern Valley's passers struggled to field Kautz's serves and stay in system.
“My coaches worked with me on serving this week at practice,” Kautz said. “So, I knew, with all the training we've done that I could do it.”
Norfolk Catholic took advantage of a series of free balls with quality passes to setter Carly Marshall who distributed them to the hitters who were able to get some quality swings.
Three kills by Robles, one each by Hannah Wilcox and Abby Miller, and an Eagle attack error tied it up at 19-all.
A Norfolk Catholic attack error gave the Eagles a 20-19 advantage, but the Knights took the lead for good with another Robles kill, a Southern Valley attack error and an Anna Neuhalfen service ace.
The Eagles' Samuelson cut it to one with a kill but Miller followed with a kill off an overpass for a 23-21 Knight lead.
Samuelson cut it to one again before Wolf's kill gave Norfolk Catholic a set point and a Southern Valley attack error made the third-set count 25-22 in favor of the Knights.
“That was a huge set for us, especially since they won the one before,” Wolf said. “So, we just came together, we rallied together and we just got it done.”
Bellar said she was frustrated that her squad started out slowly in both the second and third sets. “I told the girls in the fourth set, we needed to start better and they took that to heart and we ended up finishing it,” she said.
With the Knights one set away from qualifying for the state tournament, seniors Wolf and Miller put the team on their backs.
Miller along with Robles, Piper and Wilcox frustrated Samuelson, especially in the fourth set.
“She's a great hitter,” Miller said. “I just had to do my job as a middle blocker to line her up really good, press over the net, so that our back row could really get in their spots, so I could get a block or they could get a perfect dig.”
Wolf recorded four kills, while Miller had three kills, four blocks and a service ace to pave the way as Norfolk Catholic rolled to win the fourth set 25-15 and the match three sets to one.
“I'm proud of the girls,” Bellar said. “They could have folded after the second set because things weren't going our way, with Hayden going down with the eye injury, it kind of changed the momentum of things.”
Wolf led Norfolk Catholic with 22 kills, 26 digs and two service aces. Robles also recorded two aces. Miller provided seven blocks and Marshall dished out 46 set assists.
Norfolk Catholic's state tournament matchup with Wahoo is set for Lincoln North Star High School, Thursday afternoon at 5:30.
“It's a whole different environment at state,” Bellar said. “We've just got to do what we do and do what we do best. From here on out, it's a one-day-at-a-time thing.”
NC defeats SV 25-22, 23-25, 25-23, 25-15
Southern Valley (23-6): Mandy Schoen 1k; Krista Best 3k, 1b; Grace Hogeland 3k, 39s, 2a; Lauryn Samuelson 20k, 1a, 3b; Jennifer Moenning 16k, 1b; Madison Henderson 1a; Brianna Quinn 1b.
Norfolk Catholic (23-6): Carly Marshall 2k, 46s, 6d; Anna Neuhalfen 1a, 12d; Abby Miller 8k, 1a, 7b, 5d; Taylor Kautz 13d; Hayden Wolf 22k, 2a, 26d; Channatee Robles 13k, 2a, 2b, 23d; Hannah Wilcox 4k, 3b. 5d; Jozy Piper 3k, 3b, 1d.