MOUNT VERNON — When the Mount Vernon High School boys volleyball team makes its third state tournament appearance on Saturday, all eyes definitely won’t be on it. More than likely, everyone will be watching their opponent, the Cincinnati Elder Panthers, the defending Division I champions.
Elder (18-6) got to the state tournament by knocking off the state’s No. 1-ranked team, Cincinnati St. Xavier, in the regional finals, 23-25, 25-16, 25-14, 25-22. Mount Vernon (21-4) qualified for state by defeating Hilliard Davidson, 25-17, 25-6, 22-25, 25-17.
Neither team was expected to still be standing, but both have shown a resiliency factor that can’t be taught, only learned.
“The thing about Elder is that they lost a lot (from last year),” said Mount Vernon coach Alan Cassell. “I know early in the year, they were getting beat by some of the teams in the Cincinnati area, but they’ve really improved a lot. Obviously, they beat St. X to get to the state tournament. I think they are probably playing their best ball of the year right now.”
Elder is a perennial powerhouse, making it to the state final four times in the last 10 years. They have won the title three of those times, including last year when they beat St. Xavier. That storied tradition is something Cassell hopes is not an issue come Saturday.
“We’re trying not to talk about it too much,” said Cassell. “It was the same thing when we played Moeller, St. X or whoever. I think one advantage we have this year over years past is I’ve tried to toughen our schedule up a lot. We’ve already played Moeller, we’ve played St. X twice, we’ve played Centerville. We’ve seen the top teams, so I’m hoping the kids won’t be in awe.”
Rounding out the state tournament field are Cincinnati Moeller out of the South Region; Lakota West and Centerville out of the West Region; St. Ignatius and St. Edwards out of the North Region; and Hilliard Darby joins Mount Vernon from the East Region.
“There weren’t really any surprises, with the exception of Hilliard Darby,” Cassell said. “The two youngest teams in the state tournament are us and Darby. Darby has one senior and we have two. That can only mean the East Region will be strong down the road. From the South Region, you’ve got Elder, Moeller and St. X who are always the top teams. From the West Region, Centerville and Lakota West are strong. The North Region doesn’t have a large number of Division I teams, and St. Ignatius and St. Edwards are the pretty dominant teams. We’ve beaten both of those team, which is to our advantage, and we lost to Centerville and Moeller, but at least we’ve played them. We played them pretty well.”
Coming out of the South Region, Elder plays one of the toughest schedules in the state. The Panthers have played 13 of its 24 matches against state qualifiers, posting an 8-5 mark this season. Likewise, Mount Vernon has played seven matches against state qualifiers, going 3-4. The two team have never crossed paths this season, though they have played like competition.
“Elder has struggled this year; it is not like they’ve dominated everyone,” said Cassell. “The fact that they made it this far says they are doing something right. I’m pretty sure they are playing their best right now. They will have a lot of confidence, especially after just beating St. X. I know they’re going to underestimate us, so hopefully we can use that to our advantage.”
Since they haven’t played each other, preparation for this contest has been a little tough. Cassell has seen enough in passing, however, to know that the Jackets will face a stiff challenge.
“We don’t know a whole lot about them, but I do know they are extremely tall,” said Cassell. “They will have the tallest kids at state. I think that is possibly why it took them a while to get started this season. They lost the core of last year’s team, so it took a while for them to get going. I know they will put up a big, strong block. They will be bigger than us at just about every position on the floor.
“We could use their size to our advantage,” Cassell said. “I think one of the keys for us our serve. If we could possibly serve them out of their rotation, where they are not just going to be able to feed the ball to their middles, that could cause them problems. I do know they will be very well coached. Sean (Tierney) has been at this for a very long time, and is a great coach.”
Elder has four players on its roster taller than anyone on the Jackets, and two more players that match the Jackets’ tallest players. The heart of their team is 6-foot-4 middle hitter Jake Nieheisel, who was named Second Team All-Ohio this week. Six-foot-8 middle Matt Harpenau combines with Nieheisel to make a terrific 1-2 punch.
“Both of their middles are great players,” said Cassell. “We are going to try to move our middles around more, offensively, and try not to have them hitting into a big block. Defensively, we’ll hopefully be able to get them out of their rotation.”
If the Jackets are going to survive and advance, they will have to play a flawless game against Elder. That includes serving the ball to the best of their abilities.
“We’re trying to toughen our serves up. Unfortunately in most of our matches this year, any kind of serve was working,” said Cassell. “Now, we’ve got to be able to hit more spots and try to split some of the opponents. We’ve got to try to create a little more confusion on the other side of the net. We might even substitute some servers in and let some of the kids who hit the ball hard, get in there and see what happens.”
Mount Vernon and Elder kick off the Division I State Tournament, which will be played at Walsh Jesuit High School in Stow. Following their 2 p.m. match, Darby and Moeller square off at 3:30. Centerville takes on St. Ignatius at 5 p.m., and Lakota West plays St. Edward at 6:30 p.m. The Mount Vernon/Elder winner plays the Centerville/St. Ignatius winner on Sunday at noon, with the Darby/Moeller winner facing the Lakota West/St. Edward winner at 1:30 p.m. The Division II state championship will then be played at 5 p.m. with the Division I state championship following at 6:30 p.m.