The high school state volleyball tournament is familiar territory for coach Jeff Walck.
For his Jackson players, it is new turf.
Walck spent 14 years at Tallmadge from 1989-2002 and guided the Blue Devils to the Division II state semifinals six times, placing as state runner-up four times. He also officiated two state championship matches.
Now, in his fourth season at Jackson, he is making his ninth state appearance in some type of official capacity and preparing the Polar Bears for their first state appearance.
Jackson (27-1) will meet Chagrin Falls Kenston (20-7) in a Division I state semifinal match at approximately 6 p.m. Thursday at the Nutter Center at Wright State University.
The winner will play the winner of the other semifinal match between Cincinnati Ursuline Academy and Toledo St. Ursula Academy at 1 p.m. Saturday for the 2012 Division I state title.
“This is the biggest accomplishment I have ever had,” said 6-foot-1 senior middle hitter Paige Hill, who has a 4.1 grade-point average. “Since freshman year I have wanted to make state. This is something we have talked about since Jeff got here. I have never been more excited to play volleyball. We will be pretty confident. But you always get a little bit nervous, the jitters before the game.”
Hill, a Miami University recruit, and 5-foot-7 senior setter Kristin Cardwell are both in their fourth years as starters for Jackson, which has a 95-14 record during the past four seasons. The Polar Bears have a 54-2 mark the past two seasons.
“It is just an incredible feeling,” said Cardwell, a Cedarville University recruit who has a 3.8 grade-point average. “We have been working on this since we were younger. We met Jeff in eighth grade. It feels amazing that we can make our dream come true. We do not take any team for granted. We are down to the final four and every team is good. We have to stay focused, keep playing and not give up.”
Hill and Cardwell combine with 5-8 Laura Kelly, 5-7 Karlie DiRuzza and 5-11 Maddy Busch to give Walck five quality seniors.
“I just think our young people bought into the system that I brought,” Walck said. “They were willing to change. My seniors have been with me for four years. They have matured and they feel comfortable in the system. The senior leadership with those five kids has made a huge difference.”
Walck also relies on contributions from 5-foot-7 juniors Rachel Seifert and Kate Regas, 6-0 junior Jen Slogar, 6-1 freshman Brooke Bailey, 5-11 sophomore Stephanie Spencer and 5-6 freshman Kelly Klimo.
“I think our strength is how well we get along on the court and how well we play together,” Hill said. “A lot of us have known each other since middle school. We connect very well.”
Jackson has won three district titles in a row, one at Barberton and two at Lake. The 2010 team bowed out in a regional semifinal and the 2011 team lost in a regional final.
“It is kind of cliche, but we look at the song Dream On, and there is a lyric in the song that says you have to lose to know how to win,” Walck said. “I think that is true in all sports. We have taken an additional step each year.”
Walck said the experiences from the past couple of years have helped his players learn to stay calm and composed when another team makes a run.
“My girls are resilient,” Walck said. “They don’t panic. They don’t get shook up.”
Kenston poses quite a challenge with a tall and athletic team under coach Danny Coughlin.
“I got to see them play Walsh Jesuit [in a regional final on Saturday],” Walck said. “We got done at about 4:40 in Columbus [after defeating Pickerington North in a regional final] and I made it to Hudson before the start by about a minute and 40 seconds. They are pretty good. They are very athletic. Their two outside hitters [juniors Jaime Kosiorek and Taylor Curtis] are pretty dynamic.”
The Bombers also feature juniors Stephanie Bindernagel, Emily Newell, Lori Zagar and Katie Coverdale.
Michael Beaven can be reached at 330-996-3829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the high school blog at http://www.ohio.com/preps. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MBeavenABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.