The Hilliard Darby High School boys volleyball team is back in the Division I state tournament.
The Panthers, who were ranked first in the state poll last week, defeated Olentangy Liberty 25-3, 25-7, 25-12 in a East Region final May 18 to improve to 21-2 and advance to state for the fourth consecutive season.
Darby will face Clayton Northmont in a state quarterfinal at 11:45 a.m. Saturday, May 25, at Cuyahoga Falls Walsh Jesuit.
"Our team goal wasn't to get to state," said coach Bryan Webb, who was named Division I Coach of the Year. "We've got higher goals in mind."
Last season, Darby reached the state final for the first time in its 15-year history but lost to top-ranked Cincinnati Moeller 25-20, 25-10, 25-17.
The Panthers returned nine players from a year ago, including senior middle hitter Jarrod Kelso, senior setter Thane Fanfulik and senior outside hitter J.B. Brinkerhoff. Kelso has been named Division I Player of the Year. Fanfulik also was among the seven players to be named first-team all-state. Brinkerhoff made second-team all-state.
Northmont, which was ranked sixth in the state poll, is led by Jacob Blizzard and Logan Kerlin. Blizzard made first-team all-state and Kerlin was honorable mention all-state.
"Kelso was our best offensive player last season and he had a .415 hitting percentage," Webb said. "He's worked hard on his craft and he's at .600 this year, which is almost unheard of. He is literally unstoppable.
"But, in my opinion, we've got two of the top three players in the state. Fanfulik is the best setter in the state and it's a great combination between him and Kelso. They feed off each other and both are great because of the help of the other. To have three guys make all-state is remarkable, and it shows the respect we've gained as a program statewide."
The quarterfinal winner will face second-ranked Moeller or seventh-ranked Lakewood St. Edward in a semifinal at 12:15 p.m. Sunday, May 26. The semifinal winner will play third-ranked Beavercreek, fourth-ranked Cincinnati Elder, fifth-ranked Cleveland St. Ignatius or eighth-ranked Gahanna in the final at 5 p.m. Sunday, May 26.
Darby is 2-0 against St. Edward and Elder this season. The Panthers defeated St. Edward 25-21, 25-21, 25-15 on April 6 and 25-22, 25-15, 25-16 on April 27 and beat Elder 25-22, 25-15, 25-16 on April 27 and 25-14, 25-20, 25-13 on May 4.
Darby beat St. Ignatius 25-17, 25-12, 23-25, 25-14 on April 6 and split a pair of matches with Moeller, losing 25-19, 22-25, 26-24, 15-25, 15-10 on April 20 and winning 25-20, 21-25, 25-22, 25-14 on April 27.
The Panthers have not played Beavercreek, Gahanna or Northmont this season.
"For us, the key is we're a mature group and we've been in the final before," Webb said. "We just need to take it a point at a time and not get ahead of ourselves."
Darby had a first-round bye in the regional tournament and defeated Pickerington Central 25-3, 25-7, 25-11 in a semifinal May 15 before beating Liberty.
"We had our best practices of the year the two days before the Liberty match and I think that is reflected by the scores in the match," Webb said. "We've had a target on our back all season. We've told the boys to never underestimate how badly an opponent wants to beat us."
Wildcats fall to Lions in regional final
Davidson lost to Gahanna 25-19, 25-22, 18-25, 25-20 in a Division I East Region final May 18 to finish 14-12 overall.
"We played well, but the bottom line is that Gahanna was the better team," coach Jay Cauley said. "For a group as young as we were, to reach a regional final and finish with 14 wins with a schedule that I think was the most difficult in the state, well, it was a great job. I don't know if I've been prouder of a group.
"We were outmanned early in the season and these guys learned to play together and just got better and better. We reached our goal of getting to a regional final."
Davidson defeated St. Charles 25-11, 25-15, 25-19 in the first round May 11 and beat Bradley 17-25, 25-17, 18-25, 25-18, 15-13 in a semifinal May 15.
The Wildcats went 7-3 in the OCC-Ohio Division to tie Bradley for second, behind Darby (10-0) and ahead of Dublin Coffman (3-7), Upper Arlington (2-8) and Thomas Worthington (1-9).
Davidson loses five seniors in Cameron Hunt (middle blocker), Adam Mansour (middle blocker), Yahya Sheihk (defensive specialist), Hani Tout (opposite hitter) and Bailey Witt (defensive specialist).
Hunt, Mansour and Witt were starters.
Mansour was named first-team all-league and all-region and second-team all-state. Hunt was second-team all-league and all-region and honorable mention all-state, and Witt was honorable mention all-league.
Expected to return are juniors Anwar Hussein (middle blocker), Bradley Petrella (outside hitter), Matt Sheeley (outside hitter) and Jonathan Wegener (opposite hitter) and sophomores Ethan Foster (defensive specialist), Aksels Grants (opposite hitter), Ziyad Rasul (utility), Jake Russell (setter) and Josh Russell (outside hitter).
Josh Russell was honorable mention all-region and second-team all-league and Jake Russell was special mention all-league.
"We had five sophomores in our nine-man rotation at the end of the season," Cauley said. "Our (junior varsity) team went 21-3, the best we've ever had at that level. I think we have a lot to work with next year."
Jaguars ousted from tourney by Wildcats
Bradley defeated Westerville North 25-20, 25-23, 25-18 in the first round of the Division I East Region tournament May 11 before losing to Davidson in a regional semifinal.
The Jaguars finished 9-7 overall and went 7-3 in the OCC-Ohio to tie Davidson for second.
"It was a great match against Davidson because both teams played their best matches of the season," coach Zach Franklin said. "It was so close and they got us by two points, but we overachieved this season. We had two experienced players and we tied for second in the (OCC-Ohio) and we nearly had a chance to play for a state berth. That was beyond our hopes entering the season."
The Jaguars lose five seniors in Elliott Bell (setter), Eric Bell (libero), Nicholas Hoppe (outside hitter), Joe Sundberg (right-side hitter) and Clay Vawter (middle hitter).
Elliott Bell was honorable mention all-state and first-team all-region and all-league and Eric Bell was honorable mention all-state, second-team all-region and first-team all-league. Hoppe was honorable mention all-region and second-team all-league, and Vawter was special mention all-league.
Expected to return are junior Zac Davis (middle hitter) and freshmen Spencer Dickens (defensive specialist) and Jackson Gilbert (outside hitter). Davis was honorable mention all-league.
"We are going to be insanely young next season," Franklin said.