CULVER — After surviving back-to-back five-set thrillers with the season on the line, the Pioneer volleyball team took a different route on Saturday night.
There was no such drama in the regional championship, as the No. 3 Panthers rolled to a three-set win over No. 6 Kouts, 25-14, 25-17, 25-18.
“I was afraid the girls would come out flat since they had such a hard match this afternoon. I tell you what, they really put it together,” Pioneer coach Rod Nies said. “That’s the best we’ve played up to this point. Us coaches, we’ve said, ‘Hey, we’re still waiting for the best game.’ We just want them to keep playing better and better each time we step out on the floor, and they did that tonight. I’m very proud of how the girls played.”
The Panthers (28-3) reclaimed the regional title after a one-year hiatus and won their sixth regional title in the last seven years and eighth overall, all since 2010.
The Panthers had to survive Lakewood Park Christian earlier in the day in their semifinal match. After falling in an 0-2 hole, the Panthers came back for a 17-25, 23-25, 25-19, 25-20, 15-12 win.
“We were a little rough this morning,” senior setter Olivia Brooke said. “We barely got through that one. It’s a blessing we got through that one. Tonight we were ready to actually play our game.
“Our intensity, our passing got way better those last three sets [against LPC].”
Last week the Panthers survived No. 5 Northfield in five sets. Instead of dropping the first two sets, they led 2-0 and had to win set five after dropping sets three and four in that one.
The Panthers have a senior-led team with a lot of championship experience. Nies said he’s confident going into the fifth set with this group.
“I’m really proud of my four captains: my three seniors [Brooke, Madison Blickenstaff and Mackenzie Walker] and Cripe. They really played well today,” Nies said.
Hailey Cripe was originally going to attend a softball showcase with Division-I coaches in attendance on Saturday. But the NCAA postponed when coaches can meet directly with athletes for recruiting.
“I was glad all that got moved back,” Nies said.
When asked if the Panthers could have won a regional title without Cripe, Nies said, “Oh no, absolutely not.”
Brooke seemed to agree.
“I’m glad Cripe was here. We always need somebody like that,” she said. “She’s a stud, we’ve got Madi, she’s a stud.”
The goal of winning three state championships in the same school year for this group of Pioneer athletes remains alive.
“We’re hoping for that, fingers crossed,” Brooke said.
The Panthers will compete in Class 2A in softball but are competing in Class A in volleyball and basketball. The state championship hopes in basketball took a hit when Ashlynn Brooke injured her knee this summer after picking up multiple Division-I offers.
“We’re hoping she’ll be able to come back in by the end of the season again,” her older sister said.
The Panthers’ volleyball hopes took a hit after dropping the first two sets against LPC, but they’re still alive after another comeback.
LPC finished 13-11 playing in the Fort Wayne area.
“When you look at teams that have that many losses, you think, ‘oh, they’re not very good.’ They play in a hotbed up there. It’s a lot like Muncie,” Nies said. “They took some losses to some really good teams. They’re a great team. They’re going to be back, they’re young. Kouts will be back, they’re young.”
In the match against Kouts (24-6), Brooke posted 37 assists, five digs, four kills and a block. Blickenstaff had 13 kills, 15 digs, two blocks and an ace. Cripe collected 13 kills, 21 digs, two blocks and an ace. Walker had a double-double of 19 digs and 10 kills and added two aces. Mackenzie Robinson posted 16 digs and two aces. Kaitlin Weldy collected nine digs. Brooklyn Borges had two kills and a block, and Kennedy Corn added a kill and a block.
Against LPC, Brooke had 38 assists, seven digs, three kills, a block and an ace. Blickenstaff had 19 kills, 13 digs, two blocks and an ace. Cripe posted 15 kills, 24 digs, two blocks and an ace. Walker had 25 digs, four kills and an ace. Robinson collected 22 digs and an ace. Weldy had seven digs. Borges added two kills and two blocks.
Pioneer plays defending state champion and No. 4-ranked Cowan (25-4) at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Lafayette Jeff Semistate.