MOUNT VERNON — For the third time in four years, the Mount Vernon High School boys volleyball team will be competing for a state title. The Yellow Jackets play the Centerville Elks on Saturday night in the Division I State Quarterfinals, confident that this could be their year.
The Jackets enter the state tournament with the most wins in school history, 23, and feature one of the deepest senior classes they’ve ever had. Of the seven seniors on the team, four are four-year varsity letter winners, including two-time East Region Player of the Year Carter Cassell.
“Over the last few years, we’ve improved,” said Mount Vernon coach Alan Cassell. “Go back a couple of years and when we played Moeller, St. Ignatius and some of those teams, I don’t think we expected to win. Last year, we played them again and played everybody better. The kids were starting to believe, ‘OK, we can play with these teams.’ Being at the state tournament last year was big. Elder beat us pretty handily in the first set, but by the third set, we got more confidence. This year, we are confident we can play with whoever we match up with.”
This group has experience on its side, and knows what it takes to compete with the best in the state. They’ve come a long way since they started out as freshmen.
“This says a lot about our coaching staff, all the way down to the middle school. It speaks of the dedication the kids have shown and the talent that is here,” said Cassell. “It also shows the depth of the commitment our seniors have made to get the program to where it is.”
Mount Vernon enters the tournament in a unique position. There are no dominant teams this season, and by all accounts, no favorites to win. The Jackets find themselves in an eight-team race, with a real shot at bringing home the title.
“According to the rumor mill, we are one of the teams that could win this,” said Cassell. “Everyone agrees with my earlier statement that there are five or six teams that, if they are playing good on that weekend, are capable of winning it. There is probably a little more pressure this year because we are not flying under the radar surprising people. Everyone knows we can play, and hopefully, play well.”
Up first for the Jackets are the Elks, a team rich in tradition. Centerville is making its 19th state tournament appearance, including its 12th in a row. The Elks have won three state titles and been runner-up four other times, though none since 2004. Led by coach Monte Moser, they have nine played at 6 feet or taller, and sport a 21-5 record this season.
“Centerville is, historically, one of the top teams in the state,” Cassell said. “They won several state title. They are almost always in the Elite Eight and usually in the Final Four.
“It is a large school; they draw from 1,200 boys where we’ve got 500-plus. Volleyball is very popular at their school. We beat them at the Centerville Elite Tournament. We didn’t play real good the first set, and they beat us. Then we came back and won the next three, and played really well. I’m sure they are going to have some ideas of things to change and maybe who to attack differently, but hopefully we will too and we’ll make some adjustments to counter what they do.”
If the Jackets are going to realize their dream of advancing to the state semifinals, they’ll have to beat the Elks on their home court, which they did just over a month ago. Just because they have that win in their back pocket doesn’t mean much at this point, however.
“We realize that just because we beat them in one match, it doesn’t mean anything,” said Cassell. “We have to work hard. It is going to be tough because we are playing at their home gym. We are playing at 8:15 p.m. at night, which isn’t my favorite time to play.”
The winner of Saturday night’s contest, which begins at 8:15 p.m. will advance to play the winner of the Cincinnati Moeller-Cleveland St. Ignatius match on Sunday at 12:45 p.m. The state final is scheduled for 7 p.m. Sunday night in Centerville.
“In all likelihood, the winner will end up playing Moeller in the semifinal, and they are the defending state champion,” said Cassell. “They beat us early in the year, but we beat them pretty handily at the Centerville Elite Tournament. We feel like we match up good with them. After that, my guess is (Lakewood) St. Edwards to come out of the other half (of the bracket). Once again, we beat them earlier in the year. We’ve proven we can play with these guys. We just have to do it on the floor.”
For coach Cassell, this match isn’t about winning a state title. It is about taking it one at a time, and being prepared for whatever comes their way.
“The key for us on Saturday is to come relaxed, which I think we will,” said Cassell. “We need to have a balanced attack. If you look at some of our big matches, Carter has had like 20 kills and then we’ve dropped off. We need to get away from that and be more balanced, move the ball around and be consistent. We serve pretty tough, so hopefully that will continue this weekend. We’ll just have to see what we do.”