by Beau Wicker
Washington Township’s Dold Gym has not been a kind place for Pioneer’s volleyball team.
For the second time in three years the Senators knocked off the Panthers at Dold Gym to win a regional title on Tuesday night. This one was a five-game thriller that the Senators pulled out, 22-25, 25-18, 25-20, 22-25, 17-15.
Washington Township (27-8) will play No. 6 Lafayette Central Catholic (27-9) at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Class A Caston Semistate. The No. 7 Panthers finish 27-10.
“I was proud of the effort the girls put in. When we were down we didn’t give up,” Pioneer senior libero Megan Smith said. “We knew coming in here it was going to be a tough match. It’s disappointing.”
The Panthers got a tough break when leading 14-13 in the fifth set serving for match point a swing by the Senators was called in by the line judge that Pioneer coach Rod Nies argued should have been called out, which would have given the Panthers the regional title.
“We were pretty sure that was out,” Smith said.
Nies spoke more bluntly about the controversy.
“It was a blown call,” he said.
The Panthers ended up falling short. A Sarah Dorris kill tied the match at 15-all before Lauren Kleist kill gave the Senators the lead and a Pioneer hitting error ended the match.
The Panthers struggled with uncharacteristic errors throughout.
“When it came down to it we had too many mental mistakes,” Nies said. “We seemed to always spot them at the start of each set.
“We cut back on a few errors, I think we get it.”
The Panthers got off to a slow start to the match, falling behind 18-14 in the first set before rallying for a 25-22 win. They overcame six service errors in the set. Hannah Tevis and Maddie Kiser recorded back-to-back kills to end it in Pioneer’s favor.
But the errors caught up to the Panthers in games two and three in falling behind 2-1. As the match went on it seemed like the Senators gained confidence and played better and better.
But the Panthers won a close fourth set to stay alive. They went on a 9-1 run to take a 21-15 lead. Kiser started the run with a block, Tevis had four kills and Jessica Lawrence added two. Kelsey Hill made a great save to help give the Panthers a 24-22 lead, and Dorris ended it with a kill. Lyndsey Stewart had five straight kills earlier in the set to keep the Panthers close.
The fifth set was back and forth. A Tevis kill ricocheted off a Senator and blasted off the basketball backboard near the ceiling for a point, and Smith followed with an ace to give Pioneer a 12-11 lead. A Tevis tip kill made it 13-12 and the Senators called their final timeout. A service error gave the Panthers a 14-13 lead before the controversial call helped extend the Senators’ season, and they went on for the win.
“We had some calls not go our way,” Smith said. “We tried not to focus on them and let them get to us. But in the end sometimes it does kill you.”
The future of the program remains bright, although the Panthers do lose what Nies called “three really good seniors” in Smith, setter Riley Morris and all-arounder Kayte Miller.
“We always reload,” Smith said.
Smith finished with 32 digs for the Panthers, and Miller added 22 digs. Morris dished 49 assists and added seven digs, and Shelby Roller had 12 assists to go with 19 digs.
Dorris had 17 kills and 26 digs. Tevis posted 23 kills and five blocks. Lawrence had seven kills and seven digs. Stewart added 12 kills and four blocks. Kiser had five kills and three blocks. Hill added six digs.
Nies recalled the last time the Panthers played a Dold Gym which resulted in a four-game loss in regional play two years ago.
“We played a little better than what we did two years ago. I had nightmares about that for about a year and a half. I still have nightmares,” he said.
Nies added he thinks there should be a neutral site for regional play.
“The IHSAA needs to find at a neutral site. Last year I thought it was a big advantage for us at our place,” he said. “You come up here, there’s a time zone change, it’s an hour and a half drive. It’s a small gym, they have a good crowd. There needs to be a neutral site.
“We had big plans this year. We were good enough we could have won state, just like Washington Township. We played hard, we played a heck of a game, 17-15 in the fifth set. You can’t ask for more than that.”
All in all it was another strong season for the Panthers, who reclaimed the Midwest Conference title and won their eighth straight sectional crown.
“The seniors got things refocused, got everybody back on the same page. I’m very proud of them. I’m very proud of my team,” Nies said.