With time, Cats find semistate stride

Photos by Ariana van den Akker/The Herald
Jasper’s Alex Krapf, clockwise from lower left, Sophie Weidenbenner, Abby Libbert, Mariah Moeller, Michala Flamion, Lydia Schmitt and Katie Krempp cheered as Jasper won the second set of Tuesday’s Class 3A regional at the Jasper High School gym. After Evansville Bosse won the first set 25-15, the Wildcats charged back to take the next three 25-18, 25-19, 25-22 and claim their third straight regional title. They’ll meet Brownstown Central in the second semifinal of Saturday’s semistate at Edgewood. For a gallery of photos, click here.

Herald Sports Editor

JASPER — Shades of old bubbled up for the Jasper volleyball team.

A rankled coach Liz Milligan disgustedly dropped her clipboard at one point. Reagan Hochmeister was on the receiving end of a stern chitchat. And Elisabeth Ahlbrand wasn’t sure where to hit, knowing that whatever angle she tried, she was sure to get stuffed.

But these aren’t the Wildcats of August or early September. They brought something old to Tuesday’s Class 3A regional, but they paired it with something new.

With Hochmeister’s help, Jasper snatched momentum in one of the match’s most critical stretches against an Evansville Bosse squad whose rollicking start left the Wildcats initially stunned. Ahlbrand gathered the assurance to swing away on the point that earned Jasper its 19th regional crown. And by the end, Milligan was whooping and fist-pumping along the sideline to just about every point that nudged the Wildcats closer and closer to their third straight march to the semistate.

Jasper repelled Bosse 15-25, 25-18, 25-19, 25-22, and the ability to swap a groggy start for a grand finish was the latest piece of evidence of a continual evolution.

“Honestly, beginning, midway through the season, it would have been a struggle for us. We were getting to the point where we were getting down in games and we couldn’t pick ourselves back up off the court. Which is a credit to these girls, because they knew they could come back and win these next three games, and I’m so proud of them,” Milligan said. “They have grown up and learned how to become a team and unified, and I’m just so happy for them.”

Now, the Wildcats are one of eight 3A squads still standing, and Jasper will test its progress in Saturday’s semistate at Edgewood. The Cats (21-16) will face off with Brownstown Central (25-12) following the 11 a.m. opening semifinal between Northview (33-3) and No. 9 Indianapolis Brebeuf (17-12).

Brownstown already has stopped Jasper twice this season in two-set sweeps during tournaments at Providence and New Albany. Both were within a stretch of 11 losses within the season’s first 17 matches for the Cats. Tuesday’s match started on a similar droopy trajectory before Jasper cracked a team that was somewhat of a mystery.

Making its first regional appearance, Bosse (17-14) was the only team in Sectional 32 that the Cats didn’t face in the regular season, and while Milligan remembers facing the Bulldogs during her playing days in the 1980s, she can’t remember the two squads clashing any time recently. Bosse’s troupe of big blockers — including Kennedy Madison, who smacked 17 kills — confounded the Cats early. Fourteen Jasper errors in the first set didn’t help matters, either.

But after trailing 11-10 in the second set and 10-6 in the third, Jasper gained traction and confidence, thanks to a tiny tweak of how Teyah Leinenbach distributed her sets.

Rachel Sternberg connected on a serve for Jasper, which claimed the program’s 19th regional crown.

“We had to set (our hitters) off the net because those big tall girls were going to block them,” said Leinenbach, who logged 43 assists and 18 digs. “We tried to bring them off the net and our hitters adjusted well to that.”

Tori Sermersheim coupled 21 kills with 22 digs and Ahlbrand mashed 10 more kills — including four during a spell when the Cats peeled away from a 17-all tie in the third set. Hochmeister was equally central in that spell. At 20-18, the sophomore whistled across an ace, then delivered another zinger that Bosse couldn’t return in play.

And while Hochmeister (nine kills, four blocks) makes her living at the net, she helped the Cats reach game point in the third set by digging an incoming hit that arrived with scorching speed.

“Didn’t expect that one,” Hochmeister admitted, laughing.

Moments later, after serving four straight points, Hochmeister took a seat on the bench, coming off the floor to a greeting from Milligan. A few claps and a congratulatory pat on the shoulder, as the exchange had a far different tenor than one earlier in the night when Hochmeister was struggling.

“My coach gave me a little bit of a pep talk. First there was the negative one where she was like, ”˜You’ve got to get it together a little bit,’” Hochmeister said. “But then she gave me a pep talk, and she always helps me believe in myself too, just like my teammates. That’s how I kind of pulled it together.”

Similarly, the Cats found a way when Bosse’s staying power tightened the fourth set.

A kill by Rachel Sternberg — her only one of the night — pushed the Cats up 22-18 and hushed a flurry of four straight Bulldog points. And at 24-22, when Jasper called timeout after failing to cash in on two match points, Ahlbrand sought some counsel in the huddle from assistant coach Erin Hasenour. Ahlbrand wondered whether she should hit crosscourt or down the line, because “either way I was going to get blocked,” she assumed. Hasenour told her to simply aim up the line and whale away.

So Ahlbrand let it rip. It did get blocked, but dropped inches wide of the sideline. Set, match, regional.

“I was so surprised. I wasn’t expecting it,” Ahlbrand said.

“I definitely got off to a bad start, but we just had to learn to hit around the block, and we just had to use the block so it would come off their hands and go out. We just had to find a way to get kills.”
Finding a way: It’s become the trademark move of a team that’s progressed from an August stumble to an October stride.

“We’ve come so far, and it feels awesome,” Hochmeister said. “I’ve never felt anything like it.”

“We knew all along we had the potential to be this team,” Ahlbrand added. “We just keep getting better every day. It feels great, and I can’t wait to play on Saturday.”

Contact Brendan Perkins at bperkins@dcherald.com.

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