Pieces all fitting together for volleyball Red Riders

Pieces all fitting together for volleyball Red Riders

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When a high school volleyball season begins, nobody knows for sure when, where or how it might end. Yet the 2021 Orrville Red Riders, five years removed from the school’s most recent district championship, sensed they were onto something.

And so it was that back in August, inspired by the third-year leadership of head coach Hillary Plybon and four seniors, the Riders set out to keep momentum — something huge in the sport — afloat. Clearly, their focus was fixed on a deep postseason run in a district as tough as any around.

It took 26 matches and mountains of determination to confirm what the girls felt months earlier was, at last, reality.

Prevailing in an energized five-setter over rival Smithville in the district title match this past Saturday on the Mapleton High School court, the Riders captured the school’s 15th district crown overall and the first since 2016. The win over the Smithies required come-from-behind grit, ending with a 21-25, 25-21, 22-25, 25-14, 15-8 margin.

“Everyone plays a role. Everyone is a piece of the puzzle,” said Plybon, a 2011 Orrville grad who took reins as head coach in 2019. “I’ve felt optimistic from the start of the season. We knew we had a lot of top teams on the schedule who would help us prepare for the postseason. During the season it was never about getting a W or L. It was about getting better.”

She said defense is the team’s cornerstone.

From the outset there has been a steady learning curve under Plybon’s guidance. The Riders were 8-15 overall in 2019 and improved to 15-8 in 2020.

Against Smithville, Orrville was sparked by the play of talented setter Amari Slaughter (46 assists), Ainsley Hamsher (13 kills, 12 digs, two aces) and Averi Haley (11 kills, 18 digs, three aces). Sophie Pertee, Karissa Hargrave and Lily Phillips all chipped in with eight kills apiece.

The district title triumph came on the heels of a 19-25, 25-19, 25-21, 25-19 semifinal victory over the Waynedale Golden Bears. Orrville, on a five-match win streak, and Dalton are the two Wayne County schools still standing in the playoffs.

Orrville (20-6) advanced to Thursday’s 7:30 p.m. Div. III regional semifinals in Barberton against Kirtland (24-1), which lost only its season-opener to Independence. Thursday’s semifinal victor faces either top-seeded Independence or Crestview on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Barberton.

Momentum has complemented confidence. Victories over Norton (Aug. 26) and Glen Oak (Sept. 30) served notice that Orrville could bring the goods. Also helping set the stage for the playoffs was a 3-2 home victory over Triway (Oct. 14). Early in the season, the Riders bowed 0-3 at Triway. The Titans won their fifth-straight Principals Athletic Conference with an 11-1 league mark. Orrville wound up 9-3 in the PAC.

Slaughter, a senior, had accumulated a team-best 785 assists heading into the regional semifinals. She had served a total of 56 aces. In the kills department, Haley, a junior, led the team with 253 smashes while amassing 391 digs, followed by Hamsher, a senior, with 216 kills and 272 digs. Junior Hargrave led in blocking with 41 in her 69 sets played. Senior Ella Gonzales had accumulated 300 digs.

Plybon, a former assistant coach at Troy University in Alabama, said her girls are close emotionally, and the team unity pays untold dividends. They are not easily intimidated.

“If we bring energy, stay scrappy and be aggressive, we feel we can play with anybody,” Plybon said.