Jasper sheds doubt for forceful form

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
Jasper’s Tori Sermersheim, center, danced with head coach Liz Milligan as they celebrated their Class 3A volleyball sectional championship Saturday at the Jasper High School gym. The Wildcats swept Heritage Hills and Vincennes Lincoln to earn the program’s 35th sectional title, and they’ll host Evansville Bosse in Tuesday’s regional at 7 p.m. For a gallery of photos, click here.

Herald Sports Editor

JASPER — Jasper’s crowning moment was equal parts unexpected and appropriate.

With the Wildcats’ countdown to another volleyball sectional championship practically a foregone conclusion in the third set Saturday night, Alex Krapf leapt, whipped her arm and hammered a picture-perfect kill that extinguished Jasper’s chief sectional threat. Krapf executed the spike with a type of ease as if she’d done it hundreds of times before. Truth is, it was one of the first steps in Krapf’s return — and the salvo to Jasper’s reclamation.


Saturday became a platform for Jasper’s dominance, as the Cats began the day by charging to a 21-0 lead in a 25-3, 25-22, 25-9 flattening of Vincennes Lincoln, then later similarly dominated the finish in subduing Heritage Hills 25-21, 25-15, 25-9. Krapf soon found herself swallowed up in a moshpit of screaming teammates, and similar celebrations have played out plenty of times before for Jasper, which lengthened its state-best total of sectional titles to 35.

But in a season littered with injuries, crammed with new faces and initially shrouded in doubt, there was a definite feeling that this championship was different and perhaps a little sweeter.

“It’s been a tough road for these kids as well as myself. There’s been a lot of tears shed. But I wanted it so bad for these kids,” first-year coach Liz Milligan said.

“I’m just so excited and so proud of these girls. They just hung tough in some really tough situations throughout the season. Just to come here and play like this tonight, it’s just really awesome. I’m so proud of them and so happy for us and Jasper volleyball.”

Milligan flashed back just a few months to Jasper’s season-opening match on the road at Princeton. After suffering a sweep at the hands of a Tiger team the Cats have historically dominated, Milligan emerged from her first match as a head coach with a feeling of shellshock.

“I was like, ”˜I don’t even know what to say,’” she said. “I was just so upset about it.”

There were a few more matches along the way like that Princeton loss, Milligan said. But Saturday, the Cats (20-16) fell in line with tradition, becoming the 32nd Jasper team in the last 33 years to hit the 20-win mark. And that earned the Cats one more match this season on their home floor, as they’ll host Evansville Bosse (17-13) at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the single-match regional.

If they can beat the Bulldogs — a surprise regional opponent who captured their first sectional crown Saturday — a group of Wildcats that didn’t peek above the .500 mark until Oct. 7 can earn a return trip to the semistate for the third straight season.

“There was always some doubts in the back of my mind,” Jasper senior Mariah Moeller said. “But in the end, we all had to pull it together, and our coach kept encouraging us to do better. With her encouraging us and with a team effort, we just pulled it together and we knew we could do it.”

Added senior Tori Sermersheim: “We were so pumped up this game (against Heritage Hills), and this was the game that really mattered. We finally took those small steps to get to this big step, and we got a huge victory tonight.”

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
Jasper’s Michala Flamion emphatically celebrated scoring a point against Heritage Hills in the final.

As Milligan watched Saturday’s proceedings, there were instances everywhere of Jasper’s growth.

Sophomore setter Teyah Leinenbach picked her spots in both matches to paralyze both Lincoln and Heritage Hills by dumping soft shots in the middle of the defense — a well-disguised shot that Leinenbach has been working all season to perfect as she used to try more conventional tip shots instead.

And while Sermersheim was Jasper’s hammer as usual, blasting 18 kills against Lincoln (12-21) and 20 more against Heritage Hills (13-20), Milligan praised the incremental progress of the Cats’ complementary hitters. Reagan Hochmeister’s consistent blocking and budding hitting has helped the attack become more rounded, Milligan said, and so have the contributions of Emma Stout, who notched eight kills and four blocks in the semifinals.

Then, there was the momentary gem from Krapf, who checked in at 24-9 in the third set of the championship. She played exactly one point, but Krapf — who missed three months after sustaining her second concussion while diving for a ball at a team camp in July — made it count.

“That was one of the best feelings I’ve ever felt in my life,” Krapf said. “That was something I didn’t expect, but it was amazing that I got that privilege.”

That wasn’t the only surprise from the Cats, who began the day just shy of almost uncommon volleyball perfection.

Behind the serving of Moeller, predatory net play by Sermersheim and Stout and peerless defending from the back row, the Cats nearly pitched a shutout in the opening set against the Alices in the semifinals. Points came in bunches — 5-0, 10-0, 15-0, 20-0 — all the way up to 21-0, when the Cats rescued a shot from the back line but then hit it wide on Lincoln’s side.

“Never, since I’ve ever been coaching and it’s been rally scoring like this, I’ve never seen it,” Milligan said. “I thought, if we can get to 25-0, that has to be a record. But 21 is pretty phenomenal too.”

If that counts as a letdown, then Jasper isn’t complaining.

Hours later, the Cats weathered a competitive first set to handle a Patriot team they survived in three tight sets in the season’s second match. The one problem area that’s been a point of contention all season for the Cats was the same one that earned acclaim Saturday, as “our passing was spot-on,” Milligan said. “Our ball control was excellent tonight.”

Amid the celebration afterward, Milligan pulled her seniors together, and they huddled with each other. As they stood face to face, Milligan paused to recall the season’s unconventional timeline, which began with doubt but ended with no doubt about another Wildcat title.

“She just said, ”˜Remember at the beginning of the year, (the motto) was blood, sweat and tears, and we’ve made it this far, so we have to have the same enthusiasm during our regional — and if we do that, we will achieve the victory just like tonight, so you just have to keep working toward it,’” Moeller said.

Contact Brendan Perkins at bperkins@dcherald.com.

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