MOUNT VERNON — The mood at volleyball practice on Thursday was relaxed, carefree and calm.
Not what you’d expect from a team only two steps away from its first state championship.
The Mount Vernon High School boys volleyball will compete this Saturday at Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati for a shot at the state title. No Mount Vernon team or individual has ever won a state championship. But this year’s team wants to change that.
And the players are ready.
“I don’t think any of us really thought that we were going to make it this far,” said senior Cole Shoemaker. “But, we’re here now. And it’s time to show everybody how good we really are.”
“This was our goal, to make it to the Final Four,” said senior Bryan Downs. “And now, we’re out to win the state championship.”
Shoemaker, Downs, Dan Eddy and Josiah Burney have watched some of the best volleyball in the state over the past four years. They watched as their team grew from Ohio Capital Conference champion to perennial state contender.
Head coach Alan Cassell has been at the helm through it all. Cassell took over in 2008, following a conference championship season, and immediately raised the bar.
“I wanted to make (Mount Vernon) one of the state’s elite,” said Cassell. “To do this, I looked to play the toughest teams in the state. It progressed to the point where our teams weren’t just happy to compete with the best, but to actually win.”
Mount Vernon is now considered on par with the best in the state, such as Lakewood St. Edward, Archbishop Moeller, Cincinnati Elder and Cleveland St. Ignatius. These teams now respect the Yellow Jacket program to the point that they travel to Mount Vernon to compete.
This season’s move to Division II only emphasizes that respect. The Jackets were ranked in the Top 10 all season long, despite a 19-9 record — but that record is against one of the toughest schedules in the state of Ohio.
This is the second appearance for Mount Vernon in the Final Four. The Jackets were there two years ago, falling in the semifinal to Moeller. That season was one to remember: Unbeaten in the OCC, No.3 ranking in the state, Ohio Player of the Year awarded to Carter Cassell and Coach of the Year to Alan Cassell.
“Carter was a phenomenal player,” said Burney. “For us, it’s a lot different because we’re not as big. But, we always hustle, and we’re a lot quicker. It’s hard for a team to keep up with that.”
Saturday’s state semifinal opponent, Roger Bacon, has been there before as well. Last year, the Spartans fell to eventual D-II champ Archbishop Alter in the semis.
If the Jackets are intimidated, they don’t show it.
“As a team, we’ve played the top teams in both divisions,” said Eddy. “They’re a great team, but we’ve played great teams all year.”