CUYAHOGA FALLS — All good things must come to an end, and for the Mount Vernon High School boys volleyball team that was the 2009 season on Saturday. Playing defending state champion Cincinnati Elder in the Division I State Tournament at Walsh Jesuit High School, the Yellow Jackets fell in three straight sets, 25-16, 25-20, 26-24.
“Right now, I’m sure they are disappointed and hanging their heads,” said Mount Vernon coach Alan Cassell. “I feel bad for our seniors, going out losing like this. I get tired of saying this, but we are so close to getting these top teams. I think we came out a little nervous and a little shell-shocked.”
The Jackets (21-5) knew they would have to play their best to compete with the Panthers (19-6), and unfortunately, a slow start in Game 1 cost them valuable opportunities. Elder jumped out to a quick 4-0 lead and it was quickly a 9-3 game before Mount Vernon began to come to life.
The lead stood at six, 13-7, before Elder ripped off a 6-2 run behind its big blocking up front. Jake Nieheisel, a Division II All-Ohio selection, showed off his skills by helping score three straight points in that stretch.
“You can talk to them and you can tell them to not be intimidated; you can tell them not to worry about whose name is on the back of the jersey or how tall they are, but they have to do that,” said coach Cassell. “Our outsides, we probably got blocked more today than we are used to. They have a big front line, and they blocked well. Our passing wasn’t great; there were a lot of little aspects of the game that weren’t what we were looking for.”
Behind two kills by Carter Cassell and one each by Chris Omahan and Ben Bennett, the Jackets began to creep back into the match. A lift call pulled them within six, 20-14, but after trading serves, Elder went back to the net and finished the set with three straight points, 25-16.
“We tried to do some different things, but some of our sets were too close to the net, which didn’t give the outside hitter room to adjust for the blocks,” coach Cassell said. “We talked about that. We also tried to get our middles going. Ben Bennett had a nice game for us once we got him rolling. We tried to get more action out of the middle.”
The Panthers again took the early lead in Game 2, jumping ahead by three, 4-1. Mount Vernon responded with a run of its own, however, and took its first lead of the match, 8-7. After trading points, Elder went back ahead, 11-9, off a block by Nieheisel. After trading the serve, the Panthers moved ahead by three, 13-10, when a Mount Vernon serve failed to clear the net and a double hit was called on the Jackets.
The Jackets managed to cut the lead back to one just four serves later, but Elder had staying power. A 5-1 spurt secured the Panther lead, one which they would not give up. Despite Mount Vernon’s toughest attempts, it got no closer than three points the remainder of the way and lost by five, 25-20.
“I thought maybe our kids would show a little more to start with because we have played a pretty tough schedule this year,” said coach Cassell. “It was a little different — and I’ve told the kids this before — because Elder expects to win, Moeller expects to win and St. (Xavier) expect to win. I’m not real sure if our team is quite there yet when we are playing these tough teams.”
Down two games to none and their back to the wall, the Jackets prepared for the third set. When play began, they looked much stronger and quickly put points on the scoreboard. An ace by Chris Ingersol and a kill by Chris Hinger helped open a 4-1 lead.
“I just told them to keep our effort, and work the middles a little bit more,” coach Cassell said. “We weren’t passing as well as we liked on certain rotations.”
Elder answered, tying the match at five and again at nine, 10 and 11, but the Jackets had staying power. They rebounded to outscore the Panthers, 7-1, which helped open an 18-12 lead. But just when it seemed like this was the Jacket squad we were all used to, the Panthers responded.
Three dominant kills by 6-foot-8 Matt Harpenau helped Elder pull within one, 19-18, and the Panthers managed to tie the score at 22 a few serves later. Costly service errors by Mount Vernon helped the Panthers down the stretch. An unplayable Elder dig put the Jackets back up by one, but a kill from Clancy Gay and a Jacket hit out of play gave Elder a match-point situation.
Following a timeout, Carter Cassell came up with a kill to knot the score at 24, but another service error gave Elder the ball, and Clancy slammed it down on the next serve to take the match, 26-24.
Just like that, the Mount Vernon season came to a close. Even still, the Jackets have a lot to be proud of — the record for most wins in a season and the program’s third state tournament appearance. And all this with only two seniors.
“I want them to be hungry and say, ‘Hey, we’ve gotten the program up to where we can compete with this kind of team. Let’s put in some offseason effort so we can get stronger and bigger, and get to the point where we are not just happy to compete. We want to win.’”
Hinger and Corey Sheller, the seniors, will be greatly missed. Their leadership proved valuable in bringing a young Jacket team together.
“It is going to be extremely tough to replace them,” said coach Cassell. “Are they always the most talented kids on the floor? Probably not, but they do a lot for our team, obviously — leadership, hustle, all-out play. They are just tremendous young men.”