By Dan Wright
ERLANGER, Ky. – While the fact that Notre Dame (33-7) won its fifth 9th Region title in six years surprised no one, the fact the Pandas were able to do so by sweeping St. Henry (31-9), 25-15, 25-17, 25-20 on the Crusaders' home court in Erlanger baffled many people.
Notre Dame head coach Andrea Lanham was not one of them, even though each of the past six regional final meetings between the two schools had gone to a then-deciding third game in the former best-of-three-games format.
“The last few weeks, and really the last week, we’ve been very hungry. With how the game (against St. Henry) went earlier in the year, I’m not surprised,” said Lanham. “I know they’re going to play hard but I know what our team in capable of. I think they played great and I’m very happy.”
St. Henry had relied on its towering tandem of seniors Abbey Bessler and Rachel Fortner to defeat the Pandas in four games on Sept. 20, but Notre Dame countered this time with a balanced attack led by tournament most valuable player junior Meredith Klare.
“She does everything in the backcourt. There’s never a ball in the court that’s hit in her direction that she doesn’t try for,” said Lanham. “That’s leadership in itself because she’s going after everything she can and the majority of the time she’s not only getting it, but getting it to where it needs to go.”
Said Klare, who led Notre Dame with 22 digs and served out the match with four straight points: “I was a little surprised (to get the MVP). I thought I had a good match tonight, but there were so many other girls that could have gotten it.”
Principal among those was junior Heidi Thelen, who helped thwart the Crusaders attack with 15 kills, five blocks, and three aces despite changing positions during the tournament.
“She’s been on the outside for us the whole time. Last game we moved her over to the middle,” said Lanham of Thelen. “She played middle for us last year, but she’s been out of it for a year. You wouldn’t be able to tell from her play.”
With Thelen controlling the net, the Pandas led the entire first game, and never trailed in either of the next two after the seventh point.
“We didn’t play from start to finish,” said St. Henry head coach Maureen Kaiser. “It’s frustrating. I don’t mind losing, but we just didn’t have it all the way around. We were off. We were a step behind every ball. I don’t know. We worked really hard this week, and I played a couple of sophomores and a freshman and I think it got the best of them. We needed all six to play and play strong and they were just were tentative and uneasy about anything.”
The Crusaders were led by Bessler and Fortner, both of whom made the all-tournament team. Bessler had 11 kills, two aces and 16 kills while Fortner had nine kills and 11 assists. Sophomore setter Kendyll Kraus added 10 assists and junior libero Corie Flood had 12 digs.
Junior setter Elly Ogle, with 32 assists Saturday, and senior hitter Taylor Angel joined Klare on the all-tournament team for Notre Dame.
“Elly runs the court,” said Lanham. “She’s so athletic and you can just tell by watching her she’s working her hardest out there. She sets up a good block. She’s offensive. She does the whole package.
“Taylor’s really, really stepped up for us the last few weeks. She’s always been one of our stronger hitters, but she’s been very efficient. She’s been doing some things that she hasn’t been the most consistent at. That’s really improved the past few weeks as far as playing defense and I think she did a great job at the net blocking and getting touches and working hard to get where she needed to be.”
The Pandas move on the state tournament once again, opening up play against Letcher County Central (30-6) at 8:30 Friday night at Louisville’s Valley High School.
“We’ve been there,” said Lanham of the state tournament. “I know there’s going to be games that are harder than others, but you’ve got to go in to state and we want to get to the end, and you’ve got to have that mentality the whole time. So it doesn’t matter who we’re playing, we’re going to play our hardest.”
Newport Central Catholic-Alyssa Maier; Villa Madonna-Paige Gieske; Holy Cross-Georgia Childers; Highlands-Jessica Ginter; Cooper-Taylor Zingsheim; Ryle-Heather Torline; St. Henry-Abbey Bessler, Rachel Fortner; Notre Dame-Elly Ogle, Taylor Angel. Most valuable player-Meredith Klare (Notre Dame).
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